Thursday, November 3, 2011

South Shore Natural Science Center welcome Northern Red-bellied Cooter

Welcome the newest member of the South Shore Natural Science Center family-- a Northern Red-bellied Cooter .

By Ruth Thompson
Wicked Local Hanover

[PHOTO -- The newest member of the science center family, an adult
Red-bellied Cooter, rests on the edge of the pond at the EcoZone.
Beside her is her “friend,” a much smaller painted turtle.]

She spent most of the afternoon lounging on the flat rock soaking in the rays. However, should she have been so inclined for a refreshing dip, the murky water of the pond was just a short slide away.

“She” is an adult Northern Red-bellied Cooter and she is the newest member of the South Shore Natural Science Center family.

She made her media debut two weeks ago and was completely unaffected.

Karen Kurkoski, naturalist and animal curator for the science center, said a veterinarian who examined the turtle believes she is between 23 and 25 years old. She weighs 10 pounds and the length of her shell measures 13-1/2 inches.

“She’s the biggest turtle we have,” Kurkoski said, adding that the cooter is in good health.

Kurkoski pointed out that the non-releasable animals, such as the adult cooter, are not given personalized names to avoid the perception that they are pets.

“They are ‘ambassadors to the wild’ and are handled for teaching purposes only,” Kurkoski said. “We are trying to educate the public to leave wildlife in the wild and obtain their pet animals from pet stores and other comparable sources.”

The science center acquired the turtle after receiving a call from MassWildLife’s Dr. Tom French who asked if the science center would be interested in taking the turtle.

There was no hesitation, said Kurkoski.

“Of course we wanted her,” she said. “We’d always wanted an adult Red-bellied Cooter.”
Kurkoski said that, according to French, the turtle was probably picked up by someone on vacation in one of the states where the turtles are naturally found, kept in captivity for awhile and then released in Connecticut where she was discovered. The turtles are not native to Connecticut.

According to the Natural Heritage & Endangered Species Program, a branch of the Mass. Division of Fisheries and Wildlife, the primary range of the Red-bellied Cooter is from the coastal plain of New Jersey south to North Carolina and inland to West Virginia. There is pocket of cooters – what’s known as an “isolated disjunct population” – confined to the ponds of Plymouth County.

“Because the exact location of her origination is not known, she can’t be released back into the wild,” she said.

Northern Red-bellied Cooters could live to be 40 - 55 years old, Kurkoski said, though she added that they wouldn’t get much bigger than the new turtle at the science center.

“She has reached full adult growth.”

Kurkoski said the Red-bellied Cooter is the second largest turtle in Massachusetts after the snapping turtle.
The turtle shares the EcoZone Turtle Pond at the science center with six other turtles and five fish.
“She gets along with the other turtles,” Kurkoski said. “There’s one painted turtle that hangs out with her.”

Judy Azanow, the public relations director at the science center, said the turtle is a great teaching tool.

That’s especially true now considering the science center is beginning another head start program with Red-bellied Cooter hatchlings, on display just a few feet from the EcoZone pond.

“People can see how the turtles start out and how they look as an adult,” Azanow said.

Kurkoski added that most baby cooters wouldn’t make it to an adult without protection, which is why the head start program is so important.

Despite her intimidating size, the turtle is very mild-mannered, according to Kurkoski.
She’s fed a diet of red and green leaf lettuce as well as Romaine lettuce. Kurkoski said the cooter also gets a protein stick.

“The mainstay of these turtles is plant life,” Kurkoski said.

Both Kurkoski and Azanow said the turtle seems to be fitting in quite nicely at her new and permanent home at the science center where she is being well cared for and looked upon by visitors with a sense of awe.

“We had some schoolchildren in and you should have seen their faces when they saw her,” Kurkoski said. “People are surprised at how big she is. And they are certainly impressed by her.”

For more information on the turtle, or the other animals, programs and exhibits at the science center, visit

Ruth Thompson can be reached at
Copyright 2011 Hanover Mariner. Some rights reserved


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