Giving an Illinois Turtle a Good Head Start
The ornate box turtle (Terrapene ornata) is protected in six Midwestern states, including Illinois, where this threatened species is fragmented across limited prairie habitat. To further its recovery in the state, Lincoln Park Zoo's experts led an expanded head start and release program in partnership with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service from 2011-2016.
How did it work? Eggs were collected from a stable ornate box turtle population in the wild and brought to Lincoln Park Zoo, where they were incubated. After hatching, juveniles spent a year growing under the expert care of zoo professionals. This head start gave the growing turtles a better chance to gain a foothold in the wild.
“Our team saw to it that these turtles were strong, mature and ready to thrive in the wild when they left the zoo,” says General Curator Dave Bernier. “In addition to providing them a wonderful home, we set them up for success.”
When the turtles were mature enough to be released, the zoo’s partners from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service helped the reptiles settle into a new home at Lost Mound Sand Prairie in Savanna, Illinois. The area was determined to be the best site within Illinois to reestablish the ornate box turtle. It includes 1,629 hectares of sand prairie, ideal habitat for the species, and is managed under state and federal protection.
More than 60 healthy hatchlings returned from Lincoln Park Zoo to the wild from 2012-2016. The last release in the series met the project’s long-term goal of establishing 100 turtles at Lost Mound Sand Prairie. Our partners with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service will continue to monitor the head-started turtles for at least five years to track behavior and survival in their new, native habitat.