By Michele Richinick, Globe Correspondent
As part of an ongoing effort to protect endangered species, 138 baby turtles were released into the wild this morning between Pocksha and Great Quittacas ponds in Middleborough.
The Northern Red-Bellied Cooters were removed from the wild last fall and paired with educational and scientific facilities across the state as part of a program called Headstarting, which helps to accelerate growth and reduces the likelihood of death during a turtle’s first year of life.
Each year, participants from Massachusetts schools and nonprofit organizations raise the turtles in warm aquarium environments with unlimited food, which allow them to grow faster and ultimately make them less vulnerable to predators in the wild, officials said.
"The idea is to give the species a good head start on life," said Lisa Capone, press secretary for the Massachusetts Executive Office of Energy and Environmental Affairs. "It's also a great educational opportunity for the schools and nonprofit groups that take part."
Participants in the program release the turtles into a habitat where there is evidence of existing turtles, said Jason Zimmer, southeast district manager for MassWildlife. A portion of the turtles are always released in Middleborough, but some of the turtles are set free in ponds throughout southeastern Massachusetts.
Originally known as the Plymouth red-belly turtle, Northern Red-Bellied Cooters are listed as endangered species at both the state and federal levels and are found only in southeastern Massachusetts. They are the state’s second largest freshwater turtle, after the snapping turtle. They can grow up to 12 inches and weigh up to 10 pounds, according to the Natural Heritage & Endangered Species Program. Hatchlings are usually one inch long and, like adults, they have yellow stripes on the head, neck, and limbs.
Hatchling mortality is high for the species, with intense predation on the eggs by skunks and raccoons. Bullfrogs, wading birds, and predatory fish, like bass and pickerel, also prey on the turtles.
Students from 14 Massachusetts schools and colleges participated in the program, along with Zoo New England, Museum of Science, New England Aquarium, Berkshire Museum of Pittsfield, Buttonwood Park Zoo of New Bedford, National Marine Life Center of Bourne, the South Shore Science Center of Norwell, and the Thornton Burgess Society of Sandwich.