Biology professor Nick Geist has hatched three dozen young Western Pond Turtles from 57 eggs collected over the summer from an undisclosed Lake County location. Western Pond Turtles are California’s only native aquatic turtles species, and rapidly shrinking numbers of this species have sparked the development of a pioneering partnership between Sonoma State University and the Oakland and San Francisco Zoos to save the reptile from extinction in California. Geist, his graduate students and Oakland Zoo staffers, spent the summer monitoring a Lake County site for mother turtles and followed them to the nests where they collected their eggs.The eggs were placed in five incubators in his lab in Darwin Hall. Young turtles began to emerge late in August. More are hatching daily in the first-of-its-kind breeding program for this species in the state.
"Slow and steady is not winning the race for this species," says Geist. "The turtles must be saved before the population reaches critically low levels." The Western Pond Turtle (Clemmys marmorata) has declined precipitously, or been eliminated entirely, in so many parts of its former range, that it is now protected by the Department of Fish and Game as a California Special Concern species.
Geist has solicited the support of Bay Area zoos in a captive-breeding program —a "head start" program— to protect the young turtles which are the size of a quarter at birth. In their natural habitat, they often become tender morsels for predators such as bullfrogs, skunks and foxes. These predators, as well as the loss of 90% of its habitat, have contributed to a shocking decline of the species, according to Geist.
The first of the small hatchlings were sent to the Oakland Zoo for care until they are large enough to be released back to wild. Subsequent batches of baby turtles were sent to the Oakland Zoo as well as the San Francisco Zoo, which plans to create a public education exhibit about the project at its Koret Animal Research Center. Geist envisions a network of zoos throughout the state that will raise the hatchlings in captivity for almost a year to facilitate the immediate conservation and ultimate recovery of the Western Pond Turtle in California. He is also using the program to determine at what temperature the sex of the turtle is decided so that better conservation management techniques can be designed. Originally, the pond turtle ranged from Mexico to the Canadian border in a narrow strip along the coast. It lives to be 60 years old and its shell gets as large as 12 inches in length. Once estimated to have populations in the millions, it has virtually disappeared from urban areas of southern and northern California and most of the Central Valley.
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