By TODD McLEISH/ecoRI News contributor
DIGHTON. Mass. — On one side of a large greenhouse behind the Bristol County Agricultural High School are a dozen shallow plastic tubs, each containing a few inches of water, some artificial vegetation and several rare Blanding's turtles. A similar lineup of tubs, but with much less water, contain equally rare wood turtles. And four 60-gallon pools hold federally endangered Plymouth red-bellied cooters.
All of the turtles are less than a year old, and all are part of research projects designed to boost their populations by raising hatchlings in captivity for their first year until they are less vulnerable to predation. After a year in captivity, the animals are returned to the wild.
The effort is called “head-starting” the turtles. The Massachusetts Division of Fisheries and Wildlife (MassWildlife) has been head-starting cooters since 1984 by collecting hatchlings at the few ponds where they live in Plymouth County and having them raised at science centers around the state. Students at Bristol Aggie got involved six years ago, and this year they are raising 66 cooters in a partnership with MassWildlife and the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service.
“They’re easy to raise, so it’s gone very well,” said Brian Bastarache, a teacher in the high school’s Natural Resource Management program. “We have some issues with a shell infection this year that we haven’t had to deal with before, but it’s a disease only found in captive turtles, and we expect it will clear up once they’re released.”
Head-starting of young turtles has a somewhat controversial history, according to Bastarache, so the Blanding’s turtle project is designed to put the controversy to rest.
“Some biologists have concerns that head-starting sounds good in principle but isn’t effective in reality,” he said. “This Blanding’s experiment is to determine if it does improve population recruitment, as opposed to just making us feel good that we’re doing something. What’s different with this project is that the turtles will have an intensive post-release monitoring, and the larger ones will get a radio transmitter so they can be tracked.”
Blanding’s turtles are quite rare throughout most of their range in the central and eastern United States and Canada due to habitat fragmentation and nest predation. They are unusual in that they show no signs of aging and can remain active, healthy and continue to reproduce for more than 80 years, assuming they reach maturity. The head-start program aims to help them do so.
During a recent tour of the Bristol Aggie head-start facility, about 20 sophomores were attending to the Blanding’s turtles, weighing and measuring each one and sorting them by size.
“They’re very slow growing, so you don’t really notice their growth until you look at the data,” said student Wyatt Rego of Swansea. “They have different growth rates based on their metabolism and competition for food, so we sort them by size so the smaller ones aren’t competing for food with the big ones.”
Rego said the turtle project is one reason he enrolled at Bristol Aggie.
“You’re actually doing something, not just being in school and learning,” he said. “We’re actually helping in a government program to get something done.”
Fellow student Abigail Bruno agreed. “I’ve always had a love for nature and natural resources, so getting into this program was a natural thing,” said the Rehoboth resident. “I’ve always been interested in turtles — I have a pet tortoise at home — and I like the idea of helping out endangered species.”
Bastarache said the project teaches his students how to care for and study rare turtles by following strict scientific and safety protocols and they also learn to work independently and as teams.
“They all really want to be here,” he said. “They’re learning project management, communication with team members, and the ability to assess a problem and take actions to address it. This time of year, I stand in the corner and let them run the show so they can develop those professional and survival skills. They’re also learning how to apply computer skills and math skills.”
Nine years into a 10-year study of the head-starting of Blanding’s turtles has already shown that the effort is worthwhile. Survival of the turtles that spend their first year in captivity and safe from predators is much greater than those that spend that first year in the wild. A detailed analysis of the project’s results will be completed after the final year of the project, in 2019.
In May, the year-old Blanding’s turtles raised at Bristol Aggie will be released at the Assabet River National Wildlife Refuge in Sudbury, and Bastarache’s students will be there to wish the animals well.
While the turtle project will continue with a new batch of hatchlings next year, Bristol Aggie will launch a new partnership with Roger Williams Park Zoo this fall in which the students will also raise rare New England cottontails for release throughout the region.
Rhode Island resident and author Todd McLeish runs a wildlife blog.