John Ball Zoo works in partnership to help declining eastern box turtles population

You’ve probably seen a small turtle in your backyard, crossing the road or at the zoo. What you might not realize is that a popular species of turtles, the eastern box turtle, is experiencing population decline. The John Ball Zoo is working together with Grand Valley State University (GVSU) and Pierce Cedar Creek Institute to conduct research and field work aimed at protecting baby eastern box turtles.

John Ball Zoo, established in 1891, has a history of conservation work and has worked specifically with turtles since 2007. Their work with GVSU enables tracking of turtles, documenting their survivorship and helps to inform future conservation strategies.

Bill Flanagan, a conservation manager, has been at John Ball Zoo for 12 years. The accredited, world-class Zoo is a leader in animal care, dedicated to preserving and protecting wildlife for future generations. Their range of programs focus on the Great Lakes, the Grand River ecosystem, West Michigan native plants, red pandas, snow leopards, pygmy hippos, chimpanzees, rare butterflies and turtles.

“The John Ball Zoo is committed to saving wildlife, wild places and connecting communities to conservation,” Flanagan says. “The Zoo dedicates 3% of its revenue to conservation impact for animals in the wild.”

Their latest partnership with GVSU and Pierce Cedar Creek Institute continues supporting fieldwork to help ‘head-start’ rare eastern box turtles, and protect them from the growing population of racoons, a huge predator.

‘Head-starting’ the turtles is a rewarding job for Flanagan, who helps with raising baby turtles in the Zoo and later releases them into the wild when they are less susceptible to predators.
A hatching eastern box turtle.
“We then work with our partners to track the efficacy of this practice as well as the ecology of the head-started turtles,” he says. “Grand Valley places trackers on the head-started turtles and tracks them after they are released, documenting their survivorship. The knowledge gained from this tracking will verify the validity of head starting turtles as a conservation practice and inform future conservation strategies.”

The Zoo has helped raise and release 74 turtles throughout the past three seasons and currently has 12 baby turtles getting their head start. Studies have shown survivorship of head-started turtles is much higher than their wild turtle counterparts.

Flanagan says the long, hard work after the release is just as important as incubating the eggs, and raising the hatchlings.

“Because box turtles can live to be close to 100 years old, there are important life history benchmarks the  head-started turtles won’t reach for many years,” he says. “The partnership between John Ball Zoo, Grand Valley State University and Pierce Cedar Creek Institute gives us the opportunity to continue to study these turtles. Do they find mates, reproduce earlier and nest successfully? All are questions that are important for conservation but take a long time to study.”
A turtle with a transmitter.
Flanagan says eastern box turtles look similar to painted turtles and are found in water, but the turtles have a few characteristics that set them apart.

“They have a high-domed shell that has a hinge on the underside,” he says. “The hinge allows the box turtle to close and completely hide its limbs and head, which is what gives the box turtle its nickname.”

Their brown and orange shells often resemble a sunburst pattern, in contrast to their earth tone skin. Box turtles in Michigan can typically be seen when crossing roads, walking in the woods, or even in backyards. Flanagan says their work thus far has allowed the Zoo to learn about unique patterns.

“One of the things we have learned about box turtles from all the work we have done is they have specific places they go during times of the year for specific reasons,” he says. “If you move them too far, they may have trouble finding their way back to their home range.”

Flanagan typically warns against picking up, moving or taking the turtle home with you. If you do encounter one on the road that’s at risk of danger (of cars or other predatory animals), you can help move it across the road in the same direction it was heading.

“Be mindful of your own personal safety and do not block traffic or put yourself at risk,” he says. “They need all the turtle fans they can get.”
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