By Alice C. Elwell
Posted May 30, 2011
More than 100 parents, children and students joined the Department of Fish and Game to celebrate the year of the turtle and released over 100 red-bellied cooters into the wild on Friday.
“These are gorgeous Northern red bellied cooters,” said DFG Commissioner Mary Griffin.
She said 2011 was declared the year of the turtle by Partners in Amphibian and Reptile Conservation to raise awareness about diminishing turtle populations and encourage conservation.
The turtles released at the Burrage Pond Wildlife Management Area in Hanson were the lucky ones who were captured last fall for the “headstart” program, launched in 1980 to restore a dwindling population that bottomed out in the 1970s to about 300 red bellied cooters statewide.
In 1981, the cooter was declared a federally endangered species and a MassWildlife refuge was established for the turtles, said Peter Mirick, wildlife biologist for the Department of Fisheries and Wildlife.
He said the bullfrog is the most devastating predator to the cooter population and will eat about two a day when the turtles first hatch and are about the size of a quarter.
Headstarted turtles reach the size of a 5-year-old in one winter, “big bruisers” with a hard shell that are ignored by bullfrogs.
The state enlists schools across the region to partner with the headstart program and raise the cooters over the winter.
“Kids are helping save an endangered species in Massachusetts,” Mirick said.
The program has saturated ponds the Plymouth/Career area, Mirick said and finished up stocking the Assawompset Pond system in Middleboro and Lakeville. On Friday the cooters range was expanded to Hanson, “Our next beachhead,” Mirick said.
With 7-week-old Harrison Cuddy harnessed to her chest, Jennifer Jordan of Whitman watched over her son, Zachary Cuddy, as he mulled whether to release a turtle. The shy 4-year-old couldn’t decide if he wanted to pick up one of the squirming cooters.
Bodie Johnson, 5, of Abington, didn’t think twice about picking up a cooter and gently releasing it into the pond.
“I just wanted to,” said the boy.
His sister Aubrie, 1, wasn’t so fearless and clung to her father, Neil Johnson, who brought his children to the release saying, “I’m always trying to get them out in nature.”
Shane McLaughlin, 8 of Bridgewater, turned his attention from the turtles to a water snake that slithered close to shore.
“It’s cool, I’m not afraid of it,” he said.
But his sister Zoe, 6, kept her distance from the snake. She preferred releasing the cooter and said, “He felt soft on the bottom and crawled out of my hand.”
The turtle hunters who make the program possible are John Crane and 11-year-old Connor. The Plymouth natives track the turtles to their nests in late summer. The nests are covered with wire cages once the eggs are laid to protect them from predators. The senior Crane said the cooters’ gender is determined by the weather, a cold summer fosters males, a warm summer females.
The Johnsons keep vigil on about 70 nests until the eggs hatch and then scoop up the hatchlings into baskets and bring them home.
“I’ve have upwards of 1,000 baskets in my living room,” Crane said.
The best are culled from each clutch, notched with identifying marks, photographed and then raised over the winter in classrooms throughout the state. The remaining cooters are returned to the wild and will go dormant over the winter.
Their lucky brethren are kept in warm waters so they don’t go dormant, and fed a nutritious diet to encourage growth. They are the size of 5-year-old wild turtles, by the time they are released and have much better odds of survival.
By spring, the cooters that were once little bigger than a quarter can reach about six inches, and are too big to be gobbled up by their only live predator – bullfrogs.
Once the cooter reaches adulthood, their only predator is the car and state officials encouraged folks to stop if is safe when a turtle is crossing the road and help it to the other side and point it in the direction it was headed.
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