It's a shellebration: Endangered baby turtles hatch at zoo

June 27, 2019 - 12:24pm

Tiny endangered turtle comes out of its shell

The four tiny turtles are the first of this rare species to hatch at zoo's conservation lab

In the Oregon Zoo's conservation lab, four tiny hatchlings have come out of their shells. The nickel-sized western pond turtles, which came to the lab as eggs earlier this month, are the first of this endangered species to hatch in the zoo's conservation lab.

"We head-start baby western pond turtles in our lab and release them each year, but those turtles have already hatched when they're brought in," said Steve Hash, a keeper in the zoo's reptile and amphibian area. "We had an adult western pond turtle in the lab for treatment last month and surprise! She laid a clutch of eggs."

In addition to rearing turtle hatchlings for release, vet staff at the zoo treat adult turtles brought to the lab with shell disease, an emerging condition that causes lesions on the otherwise hard shells of western pond turtles. The Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife brought a small group of turtles to the zoo in May, where they were successfully treated. The adults were released back to the wild, but the surprise hatchlings will stay in the lab until they're big enough to fend for themselves.

"We have everything we need to raise these baby turtles here," Hash said. "They're already eating well and growing fast, which is just what they need to do to get ready to go out in the wild."

Unlike recovery programs for other endangered species like California condors or Taylor's checkerspot butterflies — which take place offsite or behind the scenes — this conservation effort is easy to see. Oregon Zoo visitors can watch the small turtles as they grow inside the zoo's Nature Exploration Station.

The western pond turtle, once common from Baja California to the Puget Sound, is listed as an endangered species in Washington and a sensitive species in Oregon. Two decades ago, western pond turtles were on the verge of completely dying out in Washington, with fewer than 100 turtles left in the state. Since then, more than 1,500 zoo-headstarted turtles have been released.

The Western Pond Turtle Recovery Project is a collaborative effort by the Oregon Zoo, Woodland Park Zoo, Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, Bonneville Power Administration, USDA Forest Service and other partners.