Shedd Aquarium helps DuPage Forest Preserve release endangered turtles
Parents with back-to-school separation anxiety could learn a lot from Shedd Aquarium caretakers who have ensured this year's class of young Blanding's turtles are ready to face the world.
The Shedd team raised the turtles from tiny hatchlings into fidgety juveniles strong enough to go it alone in the wild.
But no one lingered over goodbyes Tuesday as the aquarists helped release 23 Blanding's turtles into their desired habitats: muddy, secluded marshes in western DuPage County.
If there is a period of adjustment, it will be short-lived. The Shedd staff, led by Dr. Matt O'Connor, will start the yearlong process all over again next week when they accept another two dozen hatchlings from the Forest Preserve District of DuPage County.
A year ago, the Shedd became a new partner in the district's head-start program, a mission that requires an impressive display of patience.
"What I always tell people is reptiles do everything slow," said O'Connor, a senior staff veterinarian at the Chicago aquarium.
The forest preserve district also is seeing slow and steady progress in a long-standing effort to rebuild a vulnerable population of Blanding's turtles, an endangered species in Illinois.
"It is going to be a hard road ahead," said Dan Thompson, a district ecologist. "And in recent years, we've seen a lot of promise. We've seen our numbers go up. We've seen diverse age structure now."
Those positive signs represent a turnaround from what forest preserve ecologists observed in the local Blanding's population in the mid-1990s. At that time, the older generations outnumbered younger ones, an indication that the turtles were dying off faster than they could repopulate.
"They weren't well-distributed," Thompson said. "They were only in a few locations, and in the locations where they occurred, their numbers were dramatically low."
The district began tracking turtle births in 1996 and started attaching transmitters to females. When they're ready to nest, ecologists bring the turtles to Willowbrook Wildlife Center in Glen Ellyn to lay and incubate their eggs.
The district then relies on zoos, museums and other institutions to raise the hatchlings in captivity for a year so their larger size offers more protection from predators and a better chance at survival. Since the inception of the program, the district has hatched out more than 3,000 turtles.
"We've stuck with it, and again this is a huge undertaking," Thompson said. "This is not something we're doing alone. We're very blessed to have many partners helping us like the Shedd."
Over the last year, the Shedd team lent its reptilian expertise, creating a "behind-the-scenes" habitat for the Blanding's turtles while taking precautions to keep the hatchlings from imprinting on humans, O'Connor said. The exact location of their release also is wrapped in secrecy to protect the turtles from potential poachers and from becoming someone's pet, which is illegal because of their endangered status.
The first year of the head-start program cost roughly $5,000, mostly for food, supplies and lighting, O'Connor said. The Shedd now expects to set aside about $4,000 in its animal health budget to rear Blanding's turtles on behalf of the forest preserve district.
"If you look at our overall budget, it's a small amount, which is the point that we usually make because it doesn't take much investment to make a huge difference," O'Connor said.
Both O'Connor, a Glen Ellyn native, and Thompson beamed with pride Tuesday introducing the turtles into their new environment, thick with reeds and plenty of camouflage from raccoons and other predators.
"It's still a hard life out there, and we have to identify these pressures and do what we can to mitigate for it. We definitely know that our predator population is much higher and denser than it should be," Thompson said.
In 2009, the state designated Blanding's turtles as an endangered species partly because of vanishing wetland habitats and roadside mortalities. They're also a slowing-maturing species and don't start breeding until their teens.
"They're particularly imperiled because they require two different habitats," O'Connor said. "So not only do you have to protect the marshes, but also the upland habitat," where the females nest.
But Thompson is encouraged by a major milestone: The district has seen some of the head-start turtles reach maturity and start to reproduce what he likes to call "grand turtles," or the grandchildren of the wild population.
To help identify the head-start turtles, ecologists have a microchip inserted into each juvenile, the edge of their shell notched and a photograph taken of the unique pattern on the bottom of their shells.
"This is all about preserving and maintaining biodiversity and the ecological health of the region," Thompson said. "So we are trying to save this species, but a lot of the work we do benefits many other species."