At-risk turtles get leg up with Detroit and Saginaw zoos, wildlife refuge

At-risk turtles get leg up with Detroit and Saginaw zoos, wildlife refuge

zoos, wildlife refuge

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SAGINAW, MI — When it comes to a popularity contest, the Blanding’s turtles at the Shiawassee National Wildlife Refuge are hardly the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles of Saginaw County.

But the long-living turtles, native to Michigan, have some real-life superheroes making sure they don’t become a mere memory.

It’s « citizen science, » said Robin Carey, the Children’s Zoo at Celebration Square’s education and conservation manager, about the collaboration with the Shiawassee refuge and the Detroit Zoo.

Using an X-ray wand, Saginaw Children’s Zoo workers and volunteers will search the refuge for mature female turtles ready to lay their yearly average of 15 eggs. The zoo will take the turtles to Detroit, where they release their eggs.

The mothers are returned to their native habitat, and the hatchlings are raised in a « very hands off » environment, Carey said. They grow to a sustainable size in three years, half the time they would in the wild, with its dormant phases during the winter.

Then the youngsters returned to Shiawassee. Radio transmitters attached to their shells reveal a 90 percent survival rate, showed a study by the University of Michigan-Flint.

Blanding’s turtles are endangered in every other state and province, said Refuge Manager Steve Kahl. In Michigan, they are listed as of special concern. They fall prey to the growing development of beaches and a raccoon population now at an all-time high.

« We’ve lost many of the natural predators such as wolves that kept the raccoons in check, » Kahl said. « As their natural habitat is lost, it’s harder for them to find something to eat. »

Freshly laid turtle eggs are often devoured the same day they’re laid. Blanding’s turtles who reach maturity can live for decades, breeding well into their 70s, Kahl added.

The children’s zoo initiated its own conservation effort a few years ago, Carey said.

« While we had a dedicated staff, we didn’t have the necessary facilities to see it through, » Carey said. « Mr. Brandy, our resident Blanding’s turtle, serves as our ambassador of that initial population. »

The refuge and the Detroit Zoo have done the project for six years, Kahl said, leading to the release of 160 young turtles. Fully grown, the turtles’ shells measure 12 to 15 inches from head to tail; the little ones are considered ready to come home when they’re 3 inches long.

The Detroit Zoo and refuge could not longer provide the search and transportation because of resources. That’s where the Children’s Zoo comes in.

« But if the Children’s Zoo hadn’t come forward, the project wouldn’t have been able to continue, » Kahl said.

« With staff and budget cuts, it would have come to a halt. The turtles are particularly long-lived, and while we’ll lose some when they tried to cross the roads around the refuge, they seem pretty hardy when they come back of Shiawassee. »

It’s a unique operation for the refuge, as well.

« Traditionally, we conserve the habitat, keeping the wetlands viable rather than a single species, » Kahl said. « But we have a very healthy colony here. It offers a very unique opportunity. »