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Graduation day for endangered turtles

Posted by: Rebecca Whitham, Communications
Photos by: Kirsten Pisto/Woodland Park Zoo

There are no caps and gowns, but this is most certainly a graduation.

Today marks the first day of the rest of their lives for 31 graduates of Woodland Park Zoo’s Living Northwest conservation project, the Western Pond Turtle Recovery Project. After hatching and being raised at the zoo for the first ten months of their lives, these endangered native turtles are ready to move on and re-enter the wetlands of Washington to help rebuild the wild population.

Each turtle is weighed, measured and notched for identification.

To get here, the 31 turtles first had to pass their final exams, which included a weigh-in and measuring to ensure they’re big enough to survive on their own in the wild.

You must be this long to ride.

Those who didn’t make the grade have been left back—but they’ll have the chance to take the test again next year after they have done a bit more growing, with a goal of reaching 2 ounces.

Tiny turtle #23 had to be left back. It was just a few ounces shy of the goal.

When these turtles were just eggs, they were collected from nearby wetlands and enrolled in turtle school at Woodland Park Zoo. Zookeepers have given them a head start on life, allowing them to hatch here and grow in a protected environment. But now it’s time to move on, as the turtles are finally big enough to avoid the wetland bully—bullfrogs, an invasive predator.

The class of 2014 is already at the zoo, waiting to hatch and get their head start.

With graduation comes responsibility. The turtles will now have to find their own food, their own shelter and make their own way in the protected wetland habitats of South Puget Sound and Columbia River Gorge.

Here, we release them in an effort to rebuild the decimated wild populations, endangered in Washington, nearly lost to habitat destruction and invasive species preying on and out-competing them.

Here, we graduate them.

Every graduation needs a ceremony and today’s takes place at a protected pond site in Lakewood, Washington. No Pomp and Circumstance here, though. The event plays out quietly and humbly to maintain the peace of the turtles’ new wetland home. The only soundtrack is the sound of biologist’s boots squishing into mud and turtle claws scuttling around in the tub where they await their turn.

One by one, we pick up each turtle and set it gently at pond’s edge, sending it off to its new life. Some swim away quickly, others linger, pattering about in the reeds before building up the strength, courage, or perhaps just sense of direction to move on.

Wherever they go next, we know we’ll K.I.T. (keep in touch). That’s because several of the turtles have been outfitted with transmitters that will help us track where the turtles go in the first critical year of their lives, providing data that helps us better protect them by better understanding their needs. This is essential, because bringing this turtle species back from the brink of extinction isn’t just about head starting hatchlings—it’s also about protecting habitat for them and ensuring a clean, stable environment in which they can thrive and continue to repopulate on their own.

So what does the future hold for these turtles? Only time (and ongoing research) will tell, though we have some predictions.

#30 started kicking its feet in the air like it was swimming before even reaching the water, then took off fast and furious at pond’s edge. 

Sizable, viable and friendly with its classmates, #79 will no doubt play a role in producing the next class of students.

No knock on #46—turtles are literally bumps on logs when they need to take in a little sun for some good old-fashioned thermoregulation.

Through the head start project, in collaboration with Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife, Oregon Zoo, Washington State Parks,  and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, we have seen the turtle population in Washington grow from 150 in 1991 to as many as  1,500 today. But head starting and releasing turtles isn’t the only way to help ensure a future for this species. We turn to you and the whole Pacific Northwest community to help us make a brighter future for our graduates.

Turtles need clean water, safe places to nest, and a healthy food supply to survive. You can help make these things possible by taking a few simple actions at home:

Keep turtles’ water clean by eliminating chemical pesticides from your gardening practices. Pesticides get into water, and once water flows away from your garden, it eventually empties into surrounding water systems—from freshwater ponds to the Puget Sound—bringing contaminants into wildlife habitat. 

Make a better home for native wildlife: Join a habitat restoration program in your community, or start in your own backyard by using native plants that nourish and support local wildlife rather than compete with it. Don’t miss our Backyard Habitat classes for hands-on lessons you can apply at home or in your community.

Want to sign the senior class’s yearbook? Leave a comment to let the turtle grads know they are 2 good 2 be 4gotten. 


Anonymous said…
Who knew pond turtles were so cute!
Anonymous said…
What a great thing this is--I wish I could have been there! Turtles are so much fun.
Anonymous said…
Well done Woodland Park Zoo! Fantastic!
Anonymous said…
Hi turtles, congratulations on making it to the pond and growing up, keep up the good work woodland park zoo. I used to volunteer with the western pond turtle project coolest thing ever was watching a little pond turtles egg shell hatch open on my hand.
Unknown said…
Sorry I couldn't be there for your graduation.
Anonymous said…
Good luck little turtles!
Anonymous said…
Go little turtles go! So cute and love your pics!
Anonymous said…
go 30 go! eat lots of bugs and maybe even a bullfrog tadpole or two! Watch out for raccoons (you should be big enough to avoid the interest of the herons).
Anonymous said…
So beautiful! WPZ does such amazing work to help animals and I very much enjoy all the photos and etc, especially the Live Cams, that you do. :) from Janet Waite, a friend of the Zoo! <3
Lisa and Elijah said…
Congratulations little turtles on making it to your new home! Best wishes in your growth and recovery in the future. Hope cute #23 graduates next year!