Nearly extinct 30 years ago, Washington’s western pond turtles are slowly recovering
Outside a field office in Pierce County, state wildlife biologist Emily Butler is filing notches into the shell of a western pond turtle.
Only two species of turtles in Washington are native. And one of those, the western pond turtle, nearly went extinct here in the 1990s. 30 years ago, the state began collaborating with partners at the Woodland Park Zoo to bring them back.
This western pond turtle's shell is about six inches across. Butler is marking it with code for the number she’s given it, "1176." She says it doesn’t hurt. But the turtle has withdrawn into its shell.
“I think it’s kind of like probably getting dental work for us,” Butler said as she swiftly counts the small squares on the shell, called scoots, and rhythmically files notches into the edges.
“They feel the vibration, I'm assuming, in their shell, but I try to be quick and then it's done. Still, they’d rather be basking in the sun in a pond.”
Butler’s team has collected about nine turtles of various sizes from the ponds in the protected wetland nearby. Some are lively and active, they look like they’re trying to swim away, while others stay hunkered down in their shells. Interns help count and catalog them and check them for signs of the latest threat they’re facing: shell disease.
Turtles with signs of the disease, often identified by red splotches that indicate lesions beneath the surface of the shell, are swabbed and photographed. State biologists are tracking the effects of lesions over time.
Most of these turtles will live to be at least 50 years old, so scientists believe the lesions are harming them. But it’s an emerging threat and very little is known so far.
Other threats include habitat loss and too much competition from non-native species of turtles, typically former pets released into the wild by well-meaning people.
Western pond turtles that are born in the wild in Washington state, ones that need these notches, are rare.
“We used to get like one a year. And so this year we're on our third. So it's very exciting,” Butler says.
Most of the animals collected here came from eggs that were hatched in Seattle at the Woodland Park Zoo. Kevin Murphy is a curator there.
“What we do is we ensure that all those eggs hatch and get to a survivable size,” Murphy said.
When they first hatch in an incubator, they’re about the size of a quarter. To survive, they need to grow to about ten times that size, so they’re bigger than the mouth of a bullfrog. Bullfrogs like to snack on baby turtles.
At the zoo, the hatchlings are fed on a steady diet of mostly proteins by their keeper, Bill McDowell.
“One day it’s crickets. One day it's on mealworms. One day it's shrimp, one day it's earthworms," McDowell said.
The aim is to keep them as wild as possible, by rotating the diet and making them work to find their food. Black curtains surround the tanks where they’re raised to keep them shy. Tiny as they are, they swim quickly and flee into the water whenever a human passes by.
The turtles leave the lab once they’re big enough to be microchipped. McDowell said that’s always a celebration, but he doesn’t think of it as success, yet. There’s so much working against this critically endangered species.
Still, just talking about the hatchlings makes this 60-something zookeeper giggle.
“You think after every year you've been doing it for so many years, it's like, oh, there's another baby turtle. But it's actually like, oh, there's a baby turtle, you know, it's like it never changes,” McDowell said.
His enthusiasm is infectious. He adores the babies, with their long tails, a special feature of the western pond turtle, and the temporary little ‘egg tooth’ that all newborns have on their snouts. It’s what they use to poke their way out of the shell and into the world.
“I mean, it's hard not to like a turtle. If somebody says, ‘oh, I can't stand turtles!’ Wouldn't that make you suspicious? I mean, seriously,” McDowell said with a laugh.
Back at the state habitat area, on one of the first sunny days of spring, Butler and her interns are also all smiles as they check their traps in several ponds.
Some are baited with sardines, others just with sunshine. They’ve set out rafts for the turtles to bask on, with nets in the center to catch them. But they’re super skittish and often end up back in the water.
“Sometimes when you come out here because it's during peak allergy season, you sneeze as you're going up here. And all the turtles ‘ploop!’ -- into the pond. So you have to wait for them to come back out.”
The real excitement though is not in the ponds. It’s in the protected nests in the surrounding wetlands. Butler leads the way to a grassy area with a wire cage on the ground. She scans the area, looking to see if any hatchlings have already headed out of one of the doors in the wire, toward the nearest pond.
She stoops to lift up the cage. At the center is a tiny dugout with a hatchling just emerging. The vulnerability of this newborn makes everyone on the scene hold their breath or gasp upon seeing it.
“There he is, just coming out into the world,” said Butler with a smile.
She hopes that three years from now, this baby turtle will have grown large enough to be getting its notches, like the three she counted in this year’s annual survey.
The number of western pond turtles in the lowlands of Puget Sound is now about ten times what it was when the species was reintroduced three decades ago, with just about 16 or 17 known animals to start.
But the ultimate goal for the Puget Sound region is a minimum of three self-sustaining populations of 200 or more, with a good dispersion of age classes. Neither of the two populations the state is still protecting are there yet. Monitoring and containing shell disease is the priority now.
Like the turtles, progress is mostly slow going.