Wildlife Watch: Tiny turtles get a head start

BURLINGTON, Vt. (WCAX) Right now, several tiny turtles are spending their winter growing instead of hibernating.

Our Cat Viglienzoni learned about the partnership to give them a head start for this Wildlife Watch.

Cat Viglienzoni: We're here at Echo Lake Aquarium and Science Center with Steve Parren who is a biologist with the fish and wildlife department. And today we're talking about tiny turtles. Steve, tell me a little bit about the program that is going on here.
Steve Parren/Vt. Fish & Wildlife Dept.: Well, the main focus of this program is the recovery of the state threatened spiny softshell turtle is a large turtle found in Lake Champlain. And my job primarily is managing these large nesting beaches that not only have softshells but they have snapping turtles and painted turtles and map turtles and unfortunately a lot of mammal predators that like to dig up turtle eggs. And working in partnership with ECHO at the end of the season some of the turtles are held over the winter here in relative safety and then I will release him later. And if I'm lucky all of the hatchlings start coming out of the nest in late August and through October. And we can have thousands of baby turtles if we're lucky.
Cat Viglienzoni: And how many, though, do we usually have like what's the percentage predators get or die off take?
Steve Parren: It varies. Some years-- well, when I first started they were taking almost all of them. Now, a couple of my beaches we do really well. We have electric fences and all sorts of stuff. All it takes is one smart skunk and things can go south.
Cat Viglienzoni: And why do we need to make sure that these turtles you know actually do survive in Vermont? What is their importance to the ecosystem?
Steve Parren: Well, they're a top predator actually. They're eating-- the spiny softshell eating-- crayfish and large insect larvae like dragonflies. But they're just really cool animals. But they weren't involved for things like development of the shoreline of Lake Champlain, so along with that development came a lot of people but also a lot of these small predators that like raccoons and skunks that are really overly abundant. I can have up to 200 turtles that nest at some of these sites it's like a lunch buffet for a raccoon or skunk that figures it out.
Cat Viglienzoni: And Steve Smith is the director of Animal Care Facilities here at ECHO. Tell me a little bit about what's the turtles arrive here, what's the process for getting them used to being in an environment that's not out in the wild?
Steve Smith/ECHO: Very often when we bring new animals in here one of the things we do is we cover up the windows so they can take their time acclimating to 180,000 people a year. And then we just sort of keep an eye on them to make sure that they're healthy and watch to see that they're going to start to eat for us and then provide any of the veterinary care that we need. And the veterinary care that we provide isn't just us, it's reaching out to the zoo and aquarium communities throughout the world. And if we have an issue with any of our animals we can reach out and get responses from veterinarians from major aquariums in the US.
Cat Viglienzoni: What are some of the challenges with overwintering a turtle?
Steve Parren: Well it's just any animal that we keep here, our goal here at ECHO is setting longevity records for everything, keeping everything as healthy as possible. So we have a large collection here, so the challenge for Jen and Shannon, the animal care staff, is observations and then getting on things as soon as they see issues. We could have bullies in the exhibits and you need to manage social situations, or we could see the start of an illness and the sooner we catch it the better off we are. When you're dealing with a neonate it's different than just medicating an adult, so it's even more of a challenge in dealing with these turtles themselves.
Cat Viglienzoni: And how much do they grow in the months that they spent here at ECHO? They are coming in at what size and they leave at about what size?
Steve Parren: I guess they come in a little bit bigger than a quarter and then they pretty much double in size by the time we release them. So maybe they're beyond the bite size of some of their predators.
Cat Viglienzoni: The head start-- does that give them a significant advantage over their counterparts that did not spend the winter growing?
Steve Parren: Well the only thing I can say to that is that those that hibernate are just going to be smaller when they come out of hibernation, so they still will be bite-size.
Cat Viglienzoni: What is the reaction from the visitors who come and who see the exhibit like this behind us and really look at these tiny turtles?
Steve Parren: It's a very popular program that we have here and I think it's popular for a variety of reasons. One, they're babies everybody loves babies. And two, it's a real program that's going on in the state. It's not just animals in captivity, there's really something going on in Lake Champlain and the surrounding areas to try to work with this species to try to save these things and there's that connection.

If you want to help, there's an easy way to do that. When you do your taxes, check the box to donate to the Nongame Wildlife Fund. That's where the money comes from to help with the turtle-saving efforts.