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Tiny turtles arrive at zoo

Aug. 1, 2023, 10:09 a.m.
A northwestern pond turtle hatchling being held between a finger and thumb

Endangered Northwest species gets a head start at the zoo’s turtle conservation lab  

Eleven quarter-sized northwestern pond turtles are making themshellves at home at the Oregon Zoo this summer. The zoo’s conservation lab is “head-starting” the endangered reptiles, caring for them until next spring when they will be large enough to have a fighting chance in the wild.

“These hatchlings are very vulnerable to predators,” said Sara Morgan, senior keeper for the zoo’s Great Northwest area. “At this small size, a bullfrog can scoop up a mouthful right out of the nest.”

The American bullfrog, native to the eastern United States but considered invasive here, is the largest frog species on the continent. It can tip the scales at more than a pound and has been driving pond turtles and a host of other small, vulnerable aquatic species to the brink of extinction. 

Earlier this summer, Morgan and her colleagues helped Washington Fish and Wildlife biologists retrieve the turtle hatchlings from sites in the Columbia Gorge, transporting them to the zoo conservation lab. With heat lamps and plentiful food, the turtles experience summer year-round so they don’t go into hibernation. Once they reach about 50 grams (a little more than 2 ounces), they are returned to their ponds and monitored for safety.

“We make sure they have everything they need to grow,” Morgan said. “When they return to the wild, they’re as large as a 3-year-old turtle.”

The northwestern pond turtle, also known as the western pond turtle, 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-head-started turtles have been released. 

“Each hatchling is critical,” Morgan said. “We need to increase the number of turtles in the wild if we’re going to save this species from extinction.”

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, U.S. Forest Service and other partners.