Bristol County Agricultural High School gives ‘threatened’ turtles a head start in life


Bristol County Agricultural High School gives ‘threatened’ turtles a head start in life

Charles Winokoor
Taunton Daily Gazette

Posted Sep 17, 2010

Original article with photos and captions

If Blanding’s turtles could talk, they would probably say thank you to participating students in the Natural Resources Management program at Bristol County Agricultural High School.

For the past three years, sophomore students involved in the NRM program have monitored and nurtured newly hatched Blanding’s turtles during the fall and winter months, eventually releasing them into the wild the following spring.

The goal of the program is to increase the Blanding’s turtle’s chances of achieving a population comeback in the Bay State.

The goal of the program is to increase the Blanding’s turtle’s chances of achieving a population comeback in the Bay State.

Massachusetts is one of six states that designate the the Blanding’s turtle as a “threatened” species. Four other states, as well as Ontario and Nova Scotia, list it as “endangered.”

The NRM program is a vital component of re-establishing the Blanding’s species in the commonwealth, said Kurt Buhlmann, a conservation ecologist at the University of Georgia’s Savannah River Ecology Laboratory.

Buhlmann came to Bristol Aggie this week, bearing the gift of nearly 50 baby, or hatchling, Blanding’s turtles.

The hatchlings will be carefully “head-started” within the temperature-controlled confines of one of the school’s six greenhouses, where they will be kept safe from birds, chipmunks and other natural predators.

The special head-start treatment ensures that the semi-aquatic turtles will have the chance to grow quicker and larger than their counterparts in the wild, thus making them far less vulnerable to becoming another animal’s meal, Buhlmann said.

The joint effort of the University of Georgia’s ecology unit and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service dates back to 2007, when 28 hatchlings were released at the Assabet River National Wildlife Refuge.

But this is only the second year Bristol CBut this is only the second year Bristol County Agricultural High School has participated by offering the use of its greenhouse, which utilizes ultra-violet lamps. They also allow the turtles to eat as much as they want, whenever they want.

The refuge, with its wetlands, fields and forest, consists of 2,230 acres,within sections of Sudbury, Maynard, Hudson and Stow.

The Assabet refuge was formerly part the U.S. Army’s former Fort Devens Sudbury Training Annex; ownership was transferred to the Fish and Wildlife Service in 2000.

“There aren’t many areas in the state like that,” said Brian Butler, president of Oxbow Associates, an Acton-based wetlands and wildlife consulting company hired to help develop the plan to re-populate the Blanding’s turtle.

Butler, who was also on hand at Bristol Aggie, said the hatchlings delivered this week were from eggs previously laid in the marshy ground of Oxbow National Wildlife Refuge, located near Ayer and Shirley.

Of the total number of eggs retrieved and examined, half were brought to the high school to be incubated while the other 50 or so were put back in the ground in protective wire-mesh cages.

Each baby turtle has identifying notch markings engraved on its shell, he said.

Butler said his company’s name came about, in part, as a result of the thesis he wrote 20 years ago at the Oxbow Wildlife Refuge.

He said his contract with the fish and wildlife service is not especially lucrative, but he added that he wasn’t complaining either.

“This project is really interesting and fun,” Butler said.

NRM students this past May traveled to Sudbubury where they went on the river in canoes and released approximately 50 healthy head-started Blanding’s turtles.

The goal for May 2011 is to release 75, Butler said.

The program model requires that at least 50 turtles be released every year for a period of 10 years.

Buhlmann said the head-start capability provided by the school is invaluable, in part because it can take 15 to 20 years for a Blanding’s turtle to reach sexual maturity.

Some of the head-started turtles literally carry a load: About a dozen of those released last spring had radio transmitters attached to their shells.

Buhlmann said that the two-stage micro-transmitters, which run on lithium batteries and are epoxied to the shells, transmit valuable information that allows researchers to track the turtles’ movements and whereabouts.

It tells us if they’re staying in the habitat and indicates if the habitat is suitable,” Buhlmann said.

It also, he said, “tells us where to release them next year.”

Each transmitter weighs just three and a half grams with the epoxy accounting for an additional gram, which equals roughly five percent of the turtle’s weight, Buhlmann said.

Zach Cava, a 23-year-old Ithica College biology graduate who is doing a herpetology internship with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, said that he tries to track the movement of the turtles three times a week.

Sixteen-year-old Katie Barboza was one of 18 NRM sophomores last year who kept track of the turtles’ progress.

“It’s a great program to start with,” in an environmental field of study, Barboza said.

Barbara Mello, public relations representative for the school’s admissions office, said NRM students have made unexpected discoveries during the course of their head-start growth studies — one of which is the benefit of natural sunlight versus UV rays.

Mello also said that one student concocted a meal the turtles found irresistible, consisting of unflavored Jello, pieces of beef heart and shrimp.

Mello said that she and others grow attached to the turtles as they become full-grown.

“I have mixed emotions when they’re released,” she said.