Turtle photo retake day – Class of 2021

Did you ever have an awkward school photo taken? Truthfully, all western painted turtle hatchling photos could be considered a bit awkward. 

Turtles are born with their yolk sacs visible through the middle of their plastron (belly). We take their photo right away, so we can ID and track their development. When they’ve grown to 30 grams and are ready for release, we can give them a microchip with a unique number to further identify them. But until they are large enough, we rely solely on their plastron photos to figure out who is who.

Their yolk sac provides them with nutrition and hydration. They absorb their yolk sac after hatching. A few days after birth, they start eating on their own and their plastron slowly begins to close over the gap. Around December, we retake their photos. This makes their patterns clearer and makes it easier for us to identify them.

A turtle’s pattern never changes throughout their lives, but it will become more complex and less defined – like stretching out a photo. Young turtles have crisper borders and less detail than older turtles. But the shape and unique features of their patterns always stay the same.

On the left is a baby western painted turtle at hatch. Its yellow yolk sac is in the middle of its plastron. On the right is the same turtle at five months old. The yolk sac is gone and its pattern is more defined.

This photo shows the plastron of an adult western painted  turtle. The shape of the pattern will be the same as it was at birth, but now there are moer yellow and orange markings mixed in with the black. This makes the pattern appear more complex.

About WPC’s Western Painted Turtle Recovery Program

In 2012, WPC expanded our program in the Fraser Valley to include the western painted turtle. In order to save this population, experts recommend protecting nests, artificially incubating eggs, headstarting young turtles for release and establishing a conservation breeding program.

Accordingly, we began salvaging western painted turtle eggs from nests at high risk — such as those on gravel boat ramps — and headstarting them. We also began collecting adults found living alone or in such small groups that effective breeding was unlikely. These turtles form the nucleus of a conservation breeding population. We headstart hatchlings for at least a year, until they are too large to be eaten by their major predators: bullfrogs that have been introduced to British Columbia. We also take in sick and injured western painted turtles for rehabilitation and release.

In 2021, we reached a milestone with the first confirmed records of nesting in the wild by western painted turtles that had been head-started and released by WPC. Five released females nested in the wild this year and their nests were monitored by the WPC team. Since it takes 6-10 years for a female painted turtle to reach maturity this project does require a slow and steady approach for recovery.

We released an additional 123 young turtles to the wild from our conservation breeding program in 2021. With careful management of the release site, these youngsters will one day join those five pioneering nesting turtles in helping their species recover in BC. 

Ramping up our conservation breeding program will allow us to release more turtles, significantly increasing wild populations and restoring them to historic areas.

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