Skip to main content

A 30th Anniversary Shell-abration for turtles!

Posted by Elizabeth Bacher, Communications
Photos by Jeremy Dwyer-Lindgren/Woodland Park Zoo

Today was a big day—30 years in the making—for a lot of little turtles! The public was able to watch as wildlife biologists from Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife (WDFW) worked with our staff this morning to prepare these endangered western pond turtles for release into a protected site in the wild. Thirty-seven of them were weighed, measured and notched—a process that doesn’t hurt them at all, where small marks are filed into their shell for identification.

Woodland Park Zoo staff and Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife biologists talk to the public about the Western Pond Turtle Recovery Project.

This year marks the 30th anniversary of the Western Pond Turtle Recovery Project. In 1990, there were only about 150 of them left in Washington, and the species—which is native to our region—nearly went extinct. In 1991, Woodland Park Zoo and Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife (WDFW) joined forces—starting a head start program to help save them. In 1993, the state listed the western pond turtle as endangered.

The process of "notching"—where a file is used to make small marks on the turtle's shell—doesn't hurt at all, and it is really helpful to be able to identify the turtle after it starts its new life in the wild. 

Each year, western pond turtle eggs are collected from the wild and taken to places where they can safely hatch and grow through the winter. We've had nearly 40 of these juveniles living behind the scenes this year, where they have been fed and kept warm. And now, thanks to this helping head start, they’re nearly as big as 3-year-old turtles that grew up in the wild.

Once they reach about 2 ounces—big enough to escape the mouths of non-native predatory bullfrogs—they are ready to be returned to the wild. That's part of what today's "check in" was about—making sure all these little ones are ready for that next step to their new lives. Next month, they will be released in protected wetlands in our state where they can bask on logs, swim around the mud banks, and dine on insects, amphibians and aquatic plants.

Each turtle is carefully weighed and measured to make sure it's big enough to avoid becoming a meal for a non-native predatory bullfrog.

Our collaborative efforts, with WDFW, Oregon Zoo, other nonprofits, government agencies and private partners have resulted in more than 2,300 turtles being head started this way—and there are now self-sustaining populations of western pond turtles in Puget Sound and the Columbia River Gorge. Surveys suggest that around 800 of those that we’ve released have survived and continue to thrive. A true conservation success story that continues to unfold after 30 years!

Become a ZooParent!
Show support and celebrate the Western Pond Turtle Recovery Project by becoming a Digital ZooParent and adopting a western pond turtle! All ZooParent adoptions help fund the care of all the animals at Woodland Park Zoo, as well as support the zoo’s wildlife conservation programs in the Pacific Northwest and around the world. 

For the young artist in your family, you can download a fun coloring sheet here.

This juvenile western pond turtle—hatched at the zoo—was part of the 2016 "graduating class" back into the wild.

Other ways you can help save turtles
  • Reduce pollutants to turtle habitat by eliminating chemical pesticides from your gardening practices.
  • Improve the quality of wildlife habitat by joining a habitat restoration program in your community.
  • Use a reputable source when purchasing or adopting pet turtles and make sure the species is legal to own and the animals have been sourced legally.
  • Take care to not release unwanted pets or animals into wild habitat—non-native species can outcompete or prey on native turtles. Call your local animal shelter to find a new home for an unwanted pet.
  • Support Woodland Park Zoo and other organizations working to conserve endangered turtles.