Blanding's turtles get a boost in DuPage

Standing knee-deep in a western DuPage County marsh, Leigh Anne Harden prepares to introduce a young Blanding's turtle to a much wider world.

And judging from how the turtle she's holding is moving its legs, it's ready to go.

"He's very excited," says Harden, an assistant biology professor at Benedictine University in Lisle. "He's excited to get out."

Moments later, Harden gently places the squirming 4-inch reptile into the water and watches it take a deep dive and then swim to nearby reeds.

After being raised in captivity for nearly two years, the Blanding's turtle and 12 of his friends were released Tuesday as part of a Forest Preserve District of DuPage County program aimed at rebuilding the reptile's numbers in DuPage. The exact location of the release is kept secret to protect the animals from potential poachers.

Twelve of the 13 turtles also will make another contribution to help their state-endangered species.

They're equipped with radio transmitters and small thermometers and will be part of a joint study by Loyola and Benedictine universities. Researchers are going to closely monitor the health and the growth of the young turtles.

"We know they're healthy when they go in," Harden said. "Following them post-release will provide a better idea of long-term survivorship and the health of the populations."

Blanding's turtles are an endangered species in Illinois because of disappearing wetland habitats. People also illegally collect the reptiles, which are known for their vibrant yellow markings.

The turtles, which can live more than 70 years, don't start breeding until their teens.

In the 1990s, district staff members noticed they were only finding adult Blanding's turtles in the preserves and not any juveniles or young adults. It was a sign the turtles were dying off faster than they could repopulate.

"We knew when the older turtles died there were no youngsters to replace them," said Dan Thompson, district ecologist.

When it was discovered predators were raiding turtle nests and snatching the eggs, staff members decided to intervene. They began tracking turtle births in 1996 and eventually started attaching transmitters to track females.

Now when female Blanding's turtles are ready to start laying eggs, usually in June, staff members take the animals to Willowbrook Wildlife Center so they can nest at the Glen Ellyn facility.

Once a turtle lays her eggs, she's released and her eggs are placed in an incubator.

The hatchlings - which are about the size of a quarter - are raised in captivity for at least a year to give them a better chance of survival.

When they're old enough, the turtles are released back to the wild.

"By head-starting them, we're bringing them out of harm's way initially." Thompson said. "We know predation rate is very high. So we'll hatch them out and then raise them for a little bit and release them."

Since the inception of "Project Head Start," more than 3,000 Blanding's turtles have been hatched by the district.

The turtles released Tuesday were the first to return to the wild this year. About 200 additional turtles will be released by early fall.

Joe Milanovich, an assistant biology professor at Loyola University, says the district's program is important.

"It's adding tons of value to science and the conservation," Milanovich said. "I think the combination of research and education is hugely important."

While there's no estimate as to how many Blanding's turtles there are in DuPage, officials are seeing positive signs the population is starting to build.

For example, officials are finding a growing number of mature turtles that were hatched years ago as part of the program.

Still, Thompson says the suburbs remain a "hostile environment" for turtles.

He said motorists especially need to be watching out for female turtles that are crossing roads to reach nesting sites to lay their eggs.

"Try to be careful," Thompson said.

  One of the 13 Blanding's turtles that was released Tuesday in a DuPage County marsh. Bev Horne/
  Leigh Anne Harden with Benedictine University and ecologist Dan Thompson with the Forest Preserve District of DuPage County release Blanding's turtles on Tuesday. Bev Horne/
  Joe Milanovich with Loyola University prepares to release a Blanding's turtle in DuPage County. Bev Horne/
  Joe Milanovich and Leigh Anne Harden compare a turtle released last year and one that was released Tuesday in DuPage County. Bev Horne/
  A nearly 2-year-old Blanding's turtle waits for release in DuPage County on Tuesday. The turtles were raised in captivity to give them a better chance of survival. Bev Horne/
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