Sunday, March 14, 2010

Endangered turtles south of Boston raised by volunteers and schools

This young northern red-bellied cooter is spending the winter in a tank at Hingham High School.
(Molly A.K. Connors for The Boston Globe)

Playing more than just shell games

By Molly A.K. Connors, Globe Correspondent

They don’t have the height of the Celtics they’re named for, but Garnett, Pierce, and Allen — who live in a 30-gallon plastic tub at Hingham High School — share those athletes’ fierce determination, and by the end of the year, they, too, will be a lot bigger than most in their age group.

Taken as hatchlings from their nests last fall, these northern red-bellied cooters are part of a “head-start” program that pairs about 120 endangered turtles each year with volunteers who care for them through the winter, then return them to their natural habitat in the spring.

The goal of the statewide program, established in 1984, is to speed baby cooters, also known as Plymouth red-bellied turtles, through the early life stages, when they are most vulnerable to predators.

“Hatchlings are just snack food for everything out there,” said Thomas French, assistant director at the Massachusetts Division of Fisheries and Wildlife.

So, while their peers born last fall have slowed down their metabolism enough to survive the winter, nestled in mud far beneath the ice covering their ponds, these Celtics are spending the winter chomping on lettuce at Hingham High and basking in 88-degree water, which speeds their metabolism and growth.

When released, they will have grown from the size of a quarter to the size of a grapefruit, or about that of a 4- or 5-year-old cooter. Back in their habitat, they continue growing until their shells are 12 to 14 inches long.

“When you head-start them, most of them survive to become adults,” French said.

In fact, French said, the program, which started when the cooter population had dropped to about 300 statewide, has successfully head-started about 3,300 turtles, who live for at least a decade before they can breed; they are tracked by notches carved into their shells.

“We are now head-starting the babies of animals we’ve head-started,” French said.

Participants say the program is successful not only because it has prevented the extinction of an endangered species but because it educates the public about vulnerable creatures in the state.

“I didn’t know we had endangered species in the state,” said Sarah Whitman, a 17-year-old senior at Hingham High School, who uses her free period each morning to tend to the food and water needs of Garnett, Pierce, and Allen.

“It’s affected everyone in the science classrooms around here,” said Dawn Diedricksen, a Hingham High science teacher who began headstarting cooters last year after she received a grant from the Curriculum Leadership Center at Bridgewater State College.

The program’s administrators and volunteers, called coordinators, say they have learned a lot over the past 25 years.

“It was very much a kitchen-table sort of thing” at first, said Dave Taylor, the program coordinator for the cooters and a retired teacher who head-started turtles in his classroom at Triton High School in Byfield.

Taylor says he began collecting monthly weight and length measurements from the coordinators in the late 1980s. “I learned that if you have 20 organizations raising the turtles, that the weights from some could be double the weights and sizes of others,” Taylor said.

The numbers he gathered and organized allowed the program to develop a protocol to care for the animals.

“This has a lot to do with the water temperature,” said Taylor. “It’s really remarkable. If the temperature is even 10 degrees cooler, these turtles won’t grow at all.”

Taylor says he spends about five to 10 hours each month monitoring the turtles’ growth and intervening when he thinks the turtles aren’t growing quickly enough.

The 120 cooters Taylor monitors are housed at several locales south of Boston, including Quincy High School, Norfolk County Agricultural High School in Walpole, and the Buttonwood Park Zoo in New Bedford.

The cost of head-starting is fairly low, said French — volunteers need tanks and lettuce.

But these turtles eat a lot of lettuce — by spring, each one will need at least a head of lettuce a day. In Hingham, Diedricksen is using the last of her grant money to buy the romaine. But many other coordinators, including the South Shore Natural Science Center in Norwell, get grocery stores to donate their discarded leafy greens, which is good enough for cooter consumption.

The bigger issue is the coordinators’ time, since the water needs to be replaced every day and the turtles must be measured every week.

For Diedricksen, that often means coming in to school on weekends. For her students, it has meant bringing the cooters — and their 30-gallon tank, complete with a pig blanket to heat the water — home over the Christmas and February vacations.

Whitman, who plans to study marine biology at UMass Dartmouth this fall, said she doesn’t mind.

“My mom loves them,” said Whitman. “She sits there and talks to them.”

The head-started turtles come from a pond in Carver. French, citing concerns that humans might take the rare turtles from their nests, declined to be more specific.

“Turtles are unique,” said French. “I don’t know any other animal that people routinely take out of the wild and bring home.’’

The cooters are one of 17 species in Massachusetts that are federally recognized as endangered. Very few animals are good candidates for head-starting, said French, but the cooters work well because they do not depend on learned behaviors; they are hard-wired to - for the leafy greens.

But as much as the participants enjoy interacting with the turtles, protecting habitats is the most effective way to protect a species, said French.

“Our first line of approach is habitat management,” French said.

But for now, because it’s so successful and relatively inexpensive, head-starting will continue, which suits Whitman just fine.

“I want them to be around.”


Molly A.K. Connors can be reached at