Tiny Turtles Released Into Lake Champlain

07/02/12 12:50PM By Jane Lindholm
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VPR/Jane Lindholm
A newly released spiny softshell turtle lingers near the shore before swimming off.

Last autumn, Vermont Edition went to the ECHO Lake Aquarium and Science Center in Burlington to see 50 tiny turtles that had been captured as eggs or newborn hatchlings from the shore of Lake Champlain and taken to the aquarium for a head start on life.

The Eastern spiny softshell turtle is a threatened species in Vermont, limited to two known areas in the big Lake. And conservationists are trying to give the species a boost

Josh Bakelaar, with the Animal Care Unit, explained how the ECHO program would help:

"We're trying to protect the baby turtles from predators as well as other types of disturbance. These are turtles from quite a few different nests. Their counterparts in the lake that hatched out this year, if they made it into the water, will hibernate over the winter and starting sometime in October when the water gets cold enough, that signals them to go into hibernation, whereas these turtles are going to be kept at room temperature. They have a basking area that's in the upper 80s that's got a simulation of sun and they will be able to eat and grow this entire time. So they arrive here somewhere between one and one and a half inches long and we expect them to grow to approximately one and three quarters or two inches, whereas their counterparts in the lake would remain essentially the same size as when they hatched out."

 

But you can't keep 50 turtles in a horse trough forever, even if they are only the size of a silver-dollar pancake.

So after nine months in their protected environment, the toddlers were released into Lake Champlain last week.

It was a windy but crystal clear day in an undisclosed location of North Hero State Park as Vermont Fish and Wildlife biologist Steve Parren gathered volunteers together to explain the day's activity:

"We've got lots of turtles, ‘cause Brian you've brought 45. I've got another 39, not all softshells.  So there's plenty of turtles to go around. I think. And we're going to bring them over to the bay side.  The wind's not hitting them right now.  It's in the lee of the wind.  And we want to spread them out.  We don't want to put them all in the same place so it looks like a buffet."

Among the assembled were several ECHO staffers, interns and volunteers. And about a dozen families, most with small children, who had "adopted" these spiny softshell turtles.  In return for their financial donation, they were given a picture of "their" turtle and allowed to name it, to visit it and the other babies over the winter, and then to help with the release in the summer.

"Alright and the Brownie troop.  Follow her.  Then we have the Bridget group."

The Johnson family, from Essex, huddled around a small bucket where three turtles were swimming in circles, bumping against the plastic sides. Each turtle was only about two inches in diameter. Eventually, when they're fully grown, the females will measure as many as 16 inches across, with the males about half that size.

Laura Johnson gave the turtle adoption package to her husband Andrew as a birthday gift and Andrew felt like he was doing something good for a threatened species.  But two-year-old Evelyn and four-year-old Alexander liked the turtles for a more direct reason:

"They have shells!! They have shells!!!"

"They do have shells.  Did you guys name these turtles yet?"

"We named one, Dinosaur Guy."

Which one is it?

Um, we don't have it.  It had a bent shell.

He picked one out, at ECHO, that he thought was our turtle.  And it doesn't look like on of these ones."

Divided into groups, the families headed to the beach with their little buckets and Tupperware containers of tiny turtles.

"Do you want to stop here? I know it's a little mucky..."

"We think mucky is not that great but really that's great for turtles to have stuff to hide into."

Mucky was an understatement. As father Andrew and four-year-old Alexander forged through the mud and into deeper water to release their turtles, mother Laura Johnson sunk up to her knees at the shoreline!

"Oh gosh, I'm really stuck!!"

"Me too!"

"This is all part of the ECHO experience."

"This is Mommy's outdoor experience for the year."

But despite the mud, Johnson said watching her husband and son release the turtles into the lake was an experience she'll never forget.  Andrew Johnson agreed.

"Letting those turtles go. Watching my son let the turtles go, that was a lot of fun. That was a lot of fun. We're directly helping out a threatened species. Seems like a symbol of Vermont we're helping. Pretty great birthday present. This is the best birthday present."

Alexander enjoyed the adventure too, though for different reasons.

"My favorite part was getting stuck! Then we couldn't get out and that was fun. I had fun seeing the turtle and looking at all the rocks back over there."

Those sentiments are exactly what ECHO and Fish and Wildlife biologist Steve Parren hope for.

"I really think it's the younger kids that showed up who had this experience, they're releasing this turtle as part of a - it's not just fun and games, it's part of a conservation program.  Does that make the switch go on? Because you can talk to adults but frankly by the time we're adults we're stuck in our ways.  All of us are - I am.  You can maybe explain something to me but I'm probably not going to change my attitudes. So I think it's the young people that came that maybe some of them will care differently and some of them maybe will be in a position to influence what happens."

Steve Parren is very invested in what happens to these turtles. He cares for many of them in his own home in Monkton over the winter, and recently declined to go on a trip to visit a daughter in Northern Ireland because it was nesting season and, as Parren says, predators don't take vacations so neither does he.

Biologists estimate that only about 2 percent of all the spiny softshells that hatch each year will survive to reproduce. Parren hopes that the head start these hatchlings were given at his home and at ECHO will allow maybe 5 percent to survive.  A depressing number for the little kids who adopted, named, and found affection for their baby turtles. But Parren says this threatened species needs all the help it can get.

"In the lifespan of a turtle, which is very long for spiny softshells, it can be as much as 60. The adult breeders replace themselves in that timeframe. It's barely holding on so if anything else bad happens, the population declines. So in the case of the spiny softshell turtle in Lake Champlain, Winooski and Burlington happened! And the textile mills happened and development happened and we don't have that population anymore. We have two populations left. And we probably have several hundred large juvenile or adult turtles in the lake. That's not much of a margin."

As the families left the beach last week, a few little turtles seemed to want to return to the shelter of their cozy Tupperware. ECHO staffers walked them into deeper water, treading carefully to avoid stepping on others.

But most of the intrepid turtles headed north into the body of the lake, floating on the currents, into a dangerous future, carrying the survival of their species on their tiny leathery backs.

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