One of 32 baby Blanding’s turtles now being housed and cared for by the Forest Preserve District as part of a turtle recovery program had a rough start in life when its mother was hit by a car in Morris.
The incident happened in June and a rehabilitator housed the injured turtle overnight before taking her for treatment to Willowbrook Wildlife Center in Glen Ellyn. During the night, the female turtle passed five of her eggs and Willowbrook was able to hatch three in an incubator.
Unfortunately, the mother turtle was too severely injured to survive and had to be euthanized, according to Dan Thompson, an ecologist with the Forest Preserve District of DuPage County who runs a regional Blanding’s turtle recovery program.
Living on through DNA
The female turtle’s three offspring – named M1, M2 and M3 because they came from Morris – are going to be cared for in captivity and then either released into the wild or kept in the breeding program. The program is designed to protect hatchlings until they are at least a year old and have a fighting chance to survive in the wild. Blanding's turtles are a state-endangered species and releasing year-old hatchlings into forest preserves will help boost their overall numbers.
M3 was sent to Will County and her siblings were sent to other organizations that have joined the turtle recovery program.
Placing the deceased turtle’s three hatchlings into the breeding program or into the wild will infuse new DNA into local turtle colonies that are cut off from each other due to habitat loss, Thompson explained.
“Most of the habitat is fragmented, so there is no gene flow now because there is no connectivity,” Thompson said. “Genetic diversity is a very important component for sustainability of populations. The more genetic diversity in a population, the better able it is to sustain challenges.”
So while M3's mother couldn't survive her injuries, she will live on through her hatchlings.
“It’s fortunate this turtle was rescued,” Thompson said. “At least some of her gene matter is still out there. She will have some form of legacy.”
Second batch of hatchlings
M3 was brought to the Forest Preserve District of Will County as part of the District's second batch of Blanding’s turtle hatchlings. The previous batch was released into a DuPage forest preserve in May.
The hatchlings will be closely monitored as they swim about in a large tub. Currently, the baby turtles are the size of a quarter or half dollar.
“Once some of them get bigger, we’ll open up a second tub,” said Jen Guest, an interpretive naturalist who is helping to care for the turtles. “Otherwise, they’ll get really competitive for food and there will be bullying.”
The hatchlings will be fed specially designed turtle food pellets to make sure they get all of the nutrients they need to grow bigger. They will be weighed and measured often to see if they are eating enough food. The goal is to release them when they are larger so they are at less risk of being eaten by predators.
Members of the public cannot view the hatchlings being cared for by the Forest Preserve, but they can observe four adult Blanding’s turtles now in residence at Isle a la Cache Museum in Romeoville. The turtle display is designed to educate members of the public about the species’ plight.
"It's nice to know that we can help increase the population and raise awareness that we do have local endangered species in Illinois and Will County, it's not just the animals you see in zoos," Guest said. " ... Just being able to educate people about that and making them more aware helps motivate them to want to take care of the environment a little better around them."
Beating the odds
The Blanding’s turtle recovery program – also underway at Illinois zoos, universities and other northern Illinois forest preserve districts – is designed to increase the odds that the turtles will survive to adulthood. A large percentage of the turtles perish as eggs or as newborns, and most don’t survive to age 1.
While other turtle species seem to be holding their own, Blanding’s turtles are in trouble because they need a larger habitat to survive, Thompson explained. Also, they don’t lay eggs as often or in as large a quantity as other turtle species that are not endangered.
Blanding’s turtles are medium size with dark, helmet-shaped shells and bright yellow chins and throats. The turtles, which can live to be more than 70 years old, like to hang out in marshes, meadows, wetlands and lakes. But those habitats continue to decline due to development in northern Illinois.
Also, poachers are still illegally trapping the species to supply Asian markets or for use as pets; cars hit turtles that are crossing roads; and predators continue to feast on eggs and newborn turtles that aren’t protected by the program.
Illinois law prohibits the taking, possession, transportation, sale or disposal of any endangered species – including Blanding’s turtles – without a permit from the Illinois Department of Natural Resources.
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