A Healthy Head Start

One of the ornate box turtles reared at the zoo is held before its release at Lost Mound Sand Prairie near Savanna, Illinois.

One of the ornate box turtles reared at the zoo is held before its release at Lost Mound Sand Prairie near Savanna, Illinois. Photo by Sharon Dewar.

Zoo-Raised Ornate Box Turtles Released to the Wild

It was a long time coming, but yesterday morning marked a milestone: 18 ornate box turtles were ready to leave the Kovler Lion House.

Yes, that does seem like a strange combination. But there’s a good reason the shelled set were growing in a habitat better known for claws and paws. The species they represent is threatened in Illinois, and Lincoln Park Zoo’s animal care expertise marked it as the perfect place for the tiny turtles to get a head start on life in the wild. (The Lion House has the added benefit of being isolated from other turtle species, a necessary condition for reintroduction.)

The turtles first arrived at the zoo a year ago—as eggs collected from a stable population in the wild through a partnership with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. Incubated in the Lion House basement, they hatched August 3, 2012 and quickly embarked on a diet-and-care regimen designed to accelerate the species’ normal growth curve.

“The whole goal for our team was to set these turtles up for success when they returned to the wild,” says General Curator Dave Bernier. “We wanted them strong, mature and ready to thrive.”

General Curator Dave Bernier readies one of the turtles for release.

General Curator Dave Bernier readies one of the turtles for release. Photo by Sharon Dewar.

While half the turtles were returned to their home nesting site, the rest were reintroduced to Lost Mound Sand Prairie near Savanna, Illinois. Formerly a U.S. Army depot—and now part of the Upper Mississippi River National Wildlife and Fish Refuge—this wild site has 1,629 hectares of the sand prairie habitat the species needs to thrive. But it has relatively few ornate box turtles, an imbalance that’s inspired this long-term restoration project.

“Our goal is to populate the area with 100 turtles by 2015,” says U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service biologist Jeramie Strickland. That total includes turtles native to the area, turtles translocated from nearby sites slated for development and turtles hatched and raised at Lincoln Park Zoo.

As of yesterday, that last group was exploring the region…slowly. After a pre-dawn departure and a three-hour drive, the juveniles were released at a protected site in the refuge. U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service scientists will monitor them with GPS tracking devices as they adapt to their new home.

Special GPS transmitters attached to the shell will help biologists track the reintroduced turtles.

Special GPS transmitters attached to the shell will help biologists track the reintroduced turtles. Photo by Sharon Dewar.

With the release, the zoo’s caregivers saw the culmination of nearly 10 months working with the hatchlings. It was bittersweet saying goodbye, but they’ll soon have some consolation: a new batch of eggs is slated to arrive this week.

 

by James Seidler • Published June 19, 2013


Learn More

One of the ornate box turtle hatchlings at the Kovler Lion House. Lincoln Park Zoo is partnering with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to restore the species, which is endangered in Illinois.

A Head Start for Ornate Box Turtles
President and CEO Kevin Bell introduces the 18 ornate box turtle hatchlings at the Kovler Lion House, part of a zoo partnership with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to restore the species to Illinois

 

Comments

How absolutely wonderful. Box turtles are one of the cutest species of reptile. I am glad to see that we care as much about saving them as we are the furry animals.
I am very proud to have worked for such a wonderful zoo.

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