Students help give endangered turtles a head start on return to the wild
WORCESTER – A local got a head start on Worcester State University this year, but not because he learned his ABCs and 1-2-3s.
No, Bones the Northern red-bellied cooter got a head start on physical growth and survival thanks to the care of students and an assistant professor at the school.
“It’s a fantastic opportunity for students, and we get to assist in the preservation of this turtle,” Nirvana Filoramo, an assistant professor of biology and a herpetologist at Worcester State, said Wednesday of the Cooter Head Start program. “Everybody feels good about it.”
The Northern red-bellied cooter is a turtle on both federal and state lists of endangered species. A small population of these turtles lives only in Plymouth and eastern Bristol counties, more than 300 miles from the nearest other cooter population, which is in New Jersey.
Since 1984, the state Division of Fisheries and Wildlife has been partnering with local schools, nature centers and museums to give red-bellied cooter hatchlings a “head start” on growth and restore the species.
The turtles will be collected, weighed and microchipped Thursday in Westboro and around 100 turtles will be released in three ponds in Southeastern Massachusetts on Friday.
As for Bones, thanks to a tank of 86-degree Fahrenheit water and a steady diet of romaine and red-leaf lettuce, he has grown from the size of a silver dollar to nearly weighing a pound and with a shell measuring nearly 6½ inches long.
Basically, instead of hibernating for the winter, Bones just kept on eating, Ms. Filoramo said.
“He’s really kind of a beast,” she said, noting that Bones was comparable in size to a 3-year-old cooter. “To put it modestly, he was quite a bit smaller.”
This is the third time Ms. Filoramo has raised turtles for the program. She recruits students from her fall semester Introductory Biology class to help care for the turtle or turtles (last year, Moe, Larry and Curly were raised), and then usually has the care and study of the reptiles taken over as part of an independent study.
This year, student Tiffany Perron compared growth rates of head-started turtles versus wild turtles over the years and found that the program was growing the turtles faster and bigger.
“This was a wonderful opportunity for me to not only work with the animals I love and gain experience, but also to work under an amazing herpetologist like Dr. Filoramo and learn from her firsthand,” Ms. Perron, a rising sophomore at the school, said in an email. “This project has made me ready take on not only my studies in the subjects of ecology and conservation but also to take on more projects like this, and I hope to make ever bigger differences in the lives of endangered animals in the future.”
Not that Bones doesn’t face some hardships.
Ms. Larson said Northern red-bellied cooters are endangered primarily because of habitat loss, as their preferred habitat of open pitch pine and shrub oak forest around ponds gets developed and also disappears because of fire suppression. Predation of turtle eggs and hatchlings (tasty morsels for suburban raccoons and skunks), road mortality, and collecting are also affecting cooter populations.
“Head-starting is one piece of a bigger puzzle,” Ms. Larson said. “It is one strategy being used among a whole overall effort to create habitat and reduce some of those threats.”
But the students and Ms. Filoramo are giving Bones a better chance at survival. Released head-started turtles have more than a 95 percent survival rate, according to MassWildlife.
Plus, raising the turtles is kind of fun.
“I like the joy and fascination the students get out of seeing these turtles,” Ms. Filoramo said. She said each turtle has a different (albeit, fairly limited) personality. Bones is pretty bold, and is a good eater.
But she admits mixed feelings about letting him go. While she likes Bones, he is not a pet. Plus, student caregivers are away for the summer, and “there’s nothing stinkier than turtle poop.”
“I like the turtles a lot more when they’re smaller,” Ms. Filoramo admitted. “They eat less, make less mess, and baby animals are cute.”