A dozen Forest Preserve guests are getting the spa treatment this winter.
They’re floating in 80-degree water, basking on rocks, snacking on specialty food and getting weighed every two weeks.
Their goal is to gain weight, not lose it, so they have a fighting chance at survival when they are released into the wild. These 12 Blanding’s turtle hatchlings are part of a regional recovery program designed to boost the state-endangered species’ numbers and ward off extinction.
“They are doing great,” said Jen Guest, a Forest Preserve program coordinator, of the latest batch of Blanding’s hatchlings. “They are growing faster than any batch we have had so far.”
Unlike the first batch the Forest Preserve received in 2017, this batch was very good at eating pellet food right off the bat, Guest said.
“The pellets give them better nutrients when they are being raised in captivity,” she explained.
The turtles are four months old now and they “have some really cool shell designs,” Guest said.
The turtles were about the size of a quarter when they arrived. As they get bigger, live food will be introduced to the hatchlings’ diet so they know what to eat when they are released.
“We get them when they are a few weeks old and we help raise them until they’re about 1 year of age,” Guest said.
The turtles will be released in late summer or early fall of 2021 at an undisclosed location. Turtle handlers will don chest-high waders and walk into ponds placing the turtles individually in the water.
“It’s really cool to just set them free and know that they’re going to have a chance to live in the wild,” Guest said.
The Blanding’s turtles aren’t treated like pets while they’re housed indoors by the Forest Preserve. The goal is to keep them wild. They are only handled when tanks are cleaned or while they are being weighed.
This batch of Blanding’s turtles is the third one raised by the Forest Preserve District, which joined the regional Blanding’s turtle recovery program in 2017. The turtle program was spearheaded by the Forest Preserve District of DuPage County and it is overseen by the Illinois Department of Natural Resources.
Before the turtles are released into a natural area, they will be microchipped and the marginal scutes, or bony plates, near the edge of the turtles’ shells will be notched with files to make sure each turtle is logged into the program and can be identified later.
Releasing 1-year-old turtles, rather than hatchlings, gives the creatures a fighting chance and it is hoped their numbers will increase. Intervention is needed because a large percentage of the turtles perish as eggs or as newborns and many more don’t survive until age 1.
Blanding’s turtles are in trouble because they need a larger habitat to survive, they lay fewer eggs than other turtle species, their habitat continues to decline, poachers nab them, cars hit them, and predators feast on eggs and newborn turtles.
Since 1999, the Forest Preserve District of DuPage County has released several thousand turtles into the wild. The recovery program also is underway at Illinois zoos, universities and other northern Illinois forest preserve districts. All of the agencies are working together to raise hatchlings that can be released into natural areas.
Blanding’s turtles can live to age 60 and some make it to 80.
In addition to the Blanding’s turtle hatchling program, an educational component also has been established at the Forest Preserve District’s Isle a la Cache Museum in Romeoville. A turtle display tank was installed at the museum in 2017 and live Blanding’s turtles that shouldn’t breed due to genetic anomalies are on display for educational purposes.
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