Since 2011, WPC’s BC recovery team has rescued, hatched, and reared western painted turtle eggs at our conservation center before returning them to suitable habitat in the wild. Beginning with fewer than 20 individuals during that 1st year in 2011, this program has expanded to allow us to release around 200 young each year to bring back painted turtle populations across the Sunshine Coast, Metro Vancouver and Fraser Valley.

This year, we released 183 juvenile turtles from the overwintering tanks at the conservation center we share with the Greater Vancouver Zoo. Releasing these turtles to the wild when they are at an age and size to have the best chance of survival will make a significant impact to the survival of the species in the Lower Mainland and Fraser Valley.

This year’s head-starting program produced 218 hatchlings that will be overwintered for release in 2023, so we can continue to restore wild populations.

Overall, we had a 68% hatch rate, which is slightly above average with previous years hatching success of 50-65%. Head-started turtles are cared for daily with feedings, cleaning and monitoring. Health checks, water quality analysis and other facility management and maintenance is ongoing as turtles are kept active year-round in order to extend the growth period.

Despite our husbandry following word-class conservation protocols, the unpredictability of caring for animals means that challenges always arise. Since the beginning of the program there have been occurrences of what has been colloquially called “soft shell”. A turtle’s shell may appear completely normal at first but over a few months the relatively soft shell of the young hatchlings doesn’t harden as expected, and becomes increasingly soft. In the early years of the program this affected between 5-10% of the hatchlings.

The western painted turtles in our headstarting program have a long road ahead of them after they are rescued as eggs from locations where they would have been in danger. These eggs have been collected from a road side where the eggs faced many threats. WPC biologists keep them safe until they hatch and grow large enough to release back to the wild.

The health of the animals in our care is of paramount importance. We submitted samples to the provincial government’s Animal Health Center (AHC), which showed that the affected turtle’s had a metabolic condition but did not identify an underlying cause. After exhausting all traditional treatments, we submitted additional samples to the AHC in 2020/21 requesting further investigation that finally revealed a diagnosis of intestinal cryptosporidiosis. Cryptosporidium encompasses numerous species of microscopic parasites that are very common in the natural environment but can cause disease in many different kinds of animals. These protozoan infections are not well known for reptiles, and there have been very few studies on infections in turtles. We initially didn’t expect it to be cryptosporidiosis as typically this presentation of soft shells is caused by poor lighting and food, which was not our case in our facility.

An initial trial treatment combining two drugs specifically for the treatment of cryptospiridiosis in 40 affected turtles resulted in a 95% recovery rate! A follow-up study that involved both drugs used separately and control untreated groups during the winter of 2021/2022 found that both treatments worked well but in different ways leading us to plan to continue their use in tandem for our hatchlings this year.

Our results from investigating and discovering a treatment for this parasite masquerading as a metabolic issue will be applicable across a wide range of other turtle conservation programs in Canada and more widely. At the same time this can encourage other conservation breeding programs to think beyond initial diagnoses when what appears to be a novel complex problem may actually be caused by a more common culprit.

In both animal care and human care we are often told in diagnostics that “when we hear hoof beats, think horses, not zebras”. The odds are, that the most common diagnosis is the probable one. However, sometimes the hoofbeats are actually zebras…especially when you work at a zoo.

Andrea Gielens

Lead Biologist – Fraser Valley Wetlands Recovery Program

Andrea manages WPC’s captive breeding and release programs for the Oregon spotted frog and the coastal western painted turtle. Andrea has studied at-risk reptiles and amphibians in Canada and abroad, including a term at the Durrell Wildlife Conservation Trust in Jersey. Andrea also manages the Taylor’s checkerspot butterfly recovery program in BC.

Andrea Gielens