Aquarium Embarks on Forest Preserve District of DuPage County’s Head-Start Program
Shedd Aquarium welcomed 24 Blanding’s turtle hatchlings (Emydoidea blandingii) to The A. Watson Armour III Center for Aquatic Animal Health and Welfare as part of a new partnership with Forest Preserve District of DuPage County. These semi-aquatic Great Lakes turtles will remain in the aquarium’s care for one year, as part of a head-start program, until they reach the appropriate size and weight to be released back into the wild at a protected site in a DuPage County forest preserve. This turtle species is considered endangered in the state of Illinois and is reliant on head-start programs like this for survival, due to extensive population decline in previous years caused by habitat loss/degradation, predation and harvesting for the pet trade.
“Shedd’s Animal Response Team is dedicated to responding and providing critical support for animals in times of need for the past 50 years. Whether it’s providing medical care for endangered tortoises recovered from poaching effort or rehabilitating stranded sea otter pups, we are a trusted partner,” said Dr. Matt O’Connor, staff veterinarian at Shedd Aquarium. “Experience caring for more than 26 species of turtles onsite puts us in a unique position to offer our expertise and join this collaborative recovery effort on behalf of an iconic local species.”
The aquarium’s Animal Health team will rear the hatchlings behind-the-scenes, taking regular measurements to monitor growth and feeding the turtles a variety of live food that they will need to learn to catch in preparation for their eventual release while keeping contact to a minimum so the turtles don’t become habituated to humans. In one year’s time, the turtles will be microchipped for identification purposes, and Dr. O’Connor will work with the Forest Preserve District to release them back into the field before beginning the caring process again with the next batch of newly-hatched turtles.
While guests at the aquarium won’t be able to interact with Shedd’s newest residents, participants in Shedd’s Behind-the-Scenes Tours will soon be able to see a live camera into their habitat and learn more about their care.
The Forest Preserve District launched the region’s first Blanding’s turtle head-start in 1996 after research indicated that the local population was comprised of mostly adults, with few juveniles present, according to Forest Preserve District ecologist Dan Thompson, who heads the program. This indicated poor survivability of the younger generations and increased the likelihood of local extinction without assistance from conservation organizations. Since its inception, the District has hatched nearly 3,300 Blanding’s turtles from wild and head-start mothers under the program.
“Turtles, like the Blanding’s, are an essential part of our local ecosystem, and serve as environmental indicators, meaning their health reflects that of their environment, but they need our help,” said Erik Neidy, Director of Natural Resources at the Forest Preserve District of DuPage County. “By expanding the program with new partners, we’re able to have a greater impact and continue increasing the strength and numbers of wild populations.”
Since the beginning of the project, partners like Brookfield Zoo, the Peggy Notebaert Nature Museum, Cosley Zoo and Shedd Aquarium have joined on to bolster the effort.
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Photo Credit: ©Shedd Aquarium/Brenna Hernandez