Mitch Gardiner displaying the unique belly (plastron) designs on a western painted turtle. Photo: Josh Banta, Greater Vancouver Zoo

In mid-July, WPC’s Western Painted Turtle Recovery team released 40 western painted turtles (Chrysemys picta belli) into wetlands in the Lower Mainland of British Columbia. This marks their graduation from our head-starting program. Our turtle head-starting program is one of the primary conservation efforts for the WPC team at the Greater Vancouver Zoo.

What is head starting?

A painted turtles faces many challenges in the wild, most of all at the start of their lives as eggs and tiny turtles, their most vulnerable life stage. When you add human activity to the mix, the rate of survival can be so low that a population becomes unsustainable.

This is where we come in.

WPC’s head starting program begins when we find turtle nests in risky areas such as roadside or frequented footpaths. When we find a nest in these areas we carefully excavate the eggs, and bring them back to our Animal Care Center at the Greater Vancouver Zoo, where they are kept in an incubator until they hatch.

A nest excavated from a high-traffic footpath.

From the moment they hatch, until they leave our program, the main goal is to bulk up our turtles. In the animal kingdom, generally a bigger body means a greater chance of survival. To achieve o0ptimal weight gain, we feed our turtles a diverse and healthy diet. We track progress by a profile of each turtle, taking pictures of their shell patterns, and documenting their age, proportions and where they were born. We do monthly “doctor visits” where we weigh each turtle to make sure they are eating their vegetables. We keep this up for 2-3 years depending on how fast they are able to put on weight.

We routinely weigh our turtles, and match the turtle with its profile.

Once the turtles are around two years old and weigh over 25 grams, they are ready to be released back into the wetlands where they were found. Being that we raise them from eggs, this is a bittersweet but rewarding moment. Over any given summer we will release several hundred turtles back into the wild.

As much as we grow attached to our turtle babies, we have to let them go back into the wild to make room for new turtles in our program. Now that they are young adults, their chances of survival are much higher, and the chance of them reproducing and stabilizing the population is also greater.

Although we are sad to see our turtles leave, we are glad to see them swim away. Farewell, little turtles!

Mitchell Gardiner

Species Recovery Technician, Fraser Valley

Mitch is recently completed his BSc at Trent University, majoring in Conservation Biology. Past experience in tallgrass prairie stewardship, and an interest in lepidoptery has given Mitch many opportunities. Mitch enjoys learning about new species and meeting the conservation experts. What he appreciates most is fostering a passion and respect for nature in others.