A baby Blanding’s turtle takes its first swim (Photo: Don Lyman)
Blanding’s turtles are considered a threatened species in Massachusetts, so the nonprofit Grassroots Wildlife Conservation is working to protect newly hatched turtles, as mortality is high in the first year. Living on Earth’s Don Lyman returns to the nest we observed in June with the biologists to find out how many eggs hatched, and help prepare the young turtles for their next adventure in local classrooms.
CURWOOD: It’s been a dry year for much of America, including the Northeast. And that’s been tough for all sorts of things, from farming to hatching baby turtles. Earlier this year, Living on Earth went out with a team of biologists who are working with some Massachusetts schoolchildren to give a boost to the regionally threatened Blanding’s turtles. This project monitors the turtles as they nest and then rears any hatchlings in classrooms over the winter for release in the spring, when the turtles are a lot bigger and stronger. The other day Bryan Windmiller went out to the Great Meadow in Concord, Massachusetts to check on the nests with a couple of young assistants.
MARCO: I’m Marco. I am 12.
ANA GRACIA: I’m Ana Gracia, and I’m 10.
WINDMILLER: It’s now ... today’s, this is September 11, right? So this is starting to get well into the period where turtles are often hatching.
CURWOOD: Bryan is the executive director of Grassroots Wildlife Conservation, and he’s concerned about what effect the drought might have had on the nest of turtle number 2028. That’s the mother we encountered when she laid her eggs back in June and this time Living on Earth’s Don Lyman went along with Bryan as well.
WINDMILLER: Right now, just to make sure that things are okay we’re just gonna scratch down and take a look just at the topmost couple of eggs, and just see if those eggs look okay.
LYMAN: Bryan opens the wire mesh cage that surrounds the nest to protect it from predators like skunks and raccoons. There’s a large, yellow sponge on top of the soil to keep the soil moist, says Bryan.
WINDMILLER: We water the sponge, and we usually overwater it so we’re actually watering the nest a little bit, too -- the soil’s been so dry so just to make sure that the eggs aren’t dehydrating. The only thing is we didn’t start doing that till August, and it was incredibly dry before then, too. So our concern is that some of the embryos might have perished back in July, when it was really hot and dry as well. So, Ana Gracia and Marco, you guys can take some turns.
LYMAN: Marco and Anna Gracia carefully dig into the nest with their hands. And pretty soon…
ANA GRACIA: It’s a turtle!
MARCO: It’s alive.
ANA GRACIA: Ooh, let me see him!
WINDMILLER: That, I was going to say, is the other thing that we sometimes find is you dig down and you find that the turtles have hatched already.
ANA GRACIA: He’s okay, he’s so cute!
WINDMILLER: Looks wonderful. I’ll go turn the hose on.
ANA GRACIA: He’s teeny!
MARCO: He does weigh as much as a quarter.
ANA GRACIA: He weighs less than a quarter.
WINDMILLER: Yeah, you can soak it for a second and we’ll also soak the nest.
LYMAN: Ana Gracia rinses the little Blanding’s turtle off with a garden hose and puts it in a plastic tub with some water.
ANA GRACIA: He’s swimming. I was kinda surprised they could swim, like, the second they got out.
WINDMILLER: Moisten the sponge. That one looks really good!
LYMAN: Bryan thinks it’s best to leave the nest alone at this point, so the rest of the hatchlings can dig their own way out. When they do, these hatchlings will go to school – literally. Bryan entrusts them to school kids like Marco and Ana Gracia who care for them in their classrooms and give them a head start in life. He says it’s a good thing they don’t have to find their way to the nearest pond -- baby Blanding’s turtles aren’t very good at finding their way to the water.
WINDMILLER: You’d inevitably find some turtles that went completely a wrong way, and then they’d wander for a while, maybe a day or two and if they don’t get eaten – which many of them do – then they might eventually turn around and figure it out.
LYMAN: As tiny hatchlings, baby turtles face a variety of hazards, as they’re only as big as a quarter and their shells are flexible.
WINDMILLER: So with that very thin, flimsy, flexible shell and tiny size, they get eaten by garter snakes, bullfrogs, blue jays; crows, people’s cats, people’s dogs, anything you can imagine; some of them are killed by insects; they’re killed sometimes by ants, when they get in the water, there are various aquatic insects that can kill them. Plus, they get run over by cars, they get run over by people on bicycles. I mean, they’re just so tiny and so vulnerable.
LYMAN: In another nest that Bryan was monitoring, he found a startling threat to Blanding’s turtle eggs that may have been related to the drought.
WINDMILLER: There were about six or seven dead eggs in there. This nest was a little unusual. Several of the eggs that were dead, there were grassroots all through the egg shell, and what we suspect happened is that the babies were literally killed by the grassroots.
LYMAN: This happens with sea turtle eggs, Bryan says. They can be killed by dune grasses.
WINDMILLER: And the roots will actually pierce the eggshells, and suck up the nutrients from the egg and kill the embryo in the process. We normally don’t see that in inland turtles so much, it’s not reported so much. But as a guess, you know it’s been so ridiculously dry that the grass roots you know weren’t able to get moisture normally from the soil, and these grassroots happened to be right next to turtle eggs, and opportunistically, they grew right through the shells and sucked up the nutrients and killed those eggs.
LYMAN: A couple of weeks later, we’re back at the nest with Bryan Windmiller and program coordinator Emilie Schuler. Bryan says no baby turtles have emerged since Marco and Ana Gracia found that first one nearly two weeks ago.
WINDMILLER: Typically, we don’t see more than a week or so that goes by between when one hatchling emerges and everyone else does. And we’ve found that rain often seems to motivate the hatchlings to come out of the ground, and we actually had one fairly decent rain just about three days ago, four days ago.
LYMAN: And time is running out, Bryan says, for the cold-blooded turtle hatchlings.
WINDMILLER: At this point, because the weather’s cooling down, it becomes harder and harder for the hatchlings that are underground to have the energy to dig themselves out.
LYMAN: Bryan and Emilie take off the mesh cage that’s been protecting the nest.
WINDMILLER: OK, you gonna go for it, Emilie?
SCHULER: Oh, what’s this. Oh, that’s the...
WINDMILLER: Temperature logger.
SCHULER: Temperature logger. Okay, well, we’ve got that.
WINDMILLER: So this records the temperature every hour. It will allow us to predict with reasonable accuracy whether the turtles are boys or girls.
SCHULER: So I think I’m seeing our first little friend here. There’s a something, some egg and some movement.
WINDMILLER: Oh! That’s looking good.
SCHULER: There’s movement. There he is.
WINDMILLER: It’s a little one.
WINDMILLER: Yeah, wonderful! Looks like that one too has been hatched for a little bit, just been sitting there.
LYMAN: Emilie digs down further into the nest.
WINDMILLER: So Emilie just dug up...here’s an egg, that you can feel, it’s got a formed embryo inside of it. But I’m suspecting that, uh...
LYMAN: It might not be alive?
WINDMILLER: Yeah, that it’s not viable anymore. This also, this nest may be pretty small because this was a first-time mom, and first-time moms often lay pretty few eggs compared to the normal average of about ten.
LYMAN: Oh, looks like some more eggs there.
WINDMILLER: Mmm hmm.
SCHULER: Yep, but, again.
WINDMILLER: So this one doesn’t have an embryo in it.
LYMAN: How can you tell?
WINDMILLER: You feel it’s really light, it’s all dried up.
LYMAN: Oh yeah.
WINDMILLER: And that may be pretty much the nest, right?
SCHULER: There’s something else down here.
WINDMILLER: Ah, is there? Oh, yep.
WINDMILLER: Oh, I’ve seen that before.
SCHULER: Look at that! A tiny egg!
LYMAN: So tiny. Why is it so tiny?
WINDMILLER: So that’s also something that we saw once before with a first-time mother, right across the street from here, who, you know, you could tell she was sitting there working, laying, and then very carefully burying things. And we always, when we put the screen over the nest we dig down just to make sure that she actually laid eggs, and we were quite sure that she’d done something, but I dug down, and I didn’t see anything, and I kept digging down, and I just had one little tiny egg. You know, this is the size of a parakeet egg.
LYMAN: Or maybe a hummingbird egg.
WINDMILLER: Or maybe a hummingbird egg, this is not the size of a Blanding’s turtle egg! I think it’s just something physiological about first-time moms.
LYMAN: Bryan says he’ll dissect the egg that has an embryo inside, but not yet, because...
WINDMILLER: My wife, who is a wildlife veterinarian, always reminds me when you work with reptiles, their metabolisms are so slow, it’s not always easy to tell when they’re dead or not.
WINDMILLER: So, so I will take that egg, actually. And I’m gonna take a little bit of the soil over here, and just in case, you know, I’m wrong, I’m just gonna put it in a container for a little bit, just to see if anybody does hatch from it before I break the shell open.
LYMAN: All in all, Turtle 2028 laid four eggs in her nest.
WINDMILLER: That’s less than half the size of a typical Blanding’s turtle clutch. And two out of the four survived, which is also low.
LYMAN: Normally about 80 percent of the eggs produce hatchlings. The low survival rate of the eggs of these threatened turtles seems to be a trend this year in New England.
WINDMILLER: We did hear from U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, so they’re monitoring the only relatively large population of Blanding’s turtles left in Massachusetts, and I believe they had 59 nests that they monitored this year. And their average hatching success was just over five hatchlings per nest, and that’s very low. And I would put up drought as my first guess as to why that’s been the case.
LYMAN: Since as many as 80 percent of Blanding’s turtles don’t make it through their first winter, Grassroots Wildlife Conservation steps in. The turtles grow much faster when cared for by humans than in the wild, Byran Windmiller says.
WINDMILLER: By the time we let them go they’re usually the size of, say, a wild four-year old. The first year their survival rate is really high, it’s around 85, 87 percent. And by the second year after we let them go it’s around 96 percent.
LYMAN: The tiny Blanding’s turtle that Emilie unearthed from the nest of turtle 2028 may have come from a small clutch, but the nine months of boarding school that awaits it gives the little guy – or gal – a good shot at living a long and productive life.
WINDMILLER: The good news is we’ve got a baby who looks healthy. And this is the second one from this nest. And we have a lot of fourth graders in Concord who are really looking forward to meeting their turtles.
LYMAN: And we plan to follow the hatchlings into the classroom as school kids do their part to protect threatened wildlife. For Living on Earth, I’m Don Lyman in Concord, Massachusetts.
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