Baby Turtles

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There are few things in this world as cute as a baby turtle, and this summer I spent several months in eager anticipation, waiting for hatchlings from a very special nest to emerge from the soil and begin their journey. This nest wasn’t just special because it belonged to a Wood Turtle; it belonged to Miranda, a Wood Turtle who was hit by a car and nearly died several years earlier. After her rehabilitation and release I have kept tabs on her using radio telemetry, and although she nested twice since her injury, this was the first time I found her eggs. Every turtle nest is valuable, but I felt personally invested in this one.

Turtle eggs face steep odds, and although they may take several months to develop, many nests are destroyed by predators within days, or even hours of being laid. To give Miranda’s eggs a better shot at survival, I protected her nest with a wire mesh cage and, 82 days later, 9 hatchlings emerged. Protecting the nest boosted the odds the eggs would make it, but for these new turtles, many difficulties lay ahead. Up to 20 years may pass before they are ready to lay eggs of their own, and the odds any of them will survive that long are very low. Why? Almost everything eats baby turtles. 

This raccoon was found consuming freshly-laid turtle eggs. Photo by Mike Dunn. Visit his blog at https://roadsendnaturalist.com/

Turtles can live and nest for many decades, sometimes more than a century, and they only need a few of their young to make it to adulthood for their populations to thrive. Even in ideal settings, most of their eggs and hatchlings won’t survive. That is normal, but the odds of survival are getting lower, especially near human developments. Coupled with roads, farming equipment, and other threats that can kill adult turtles, their populations are on the decline. Although the survival of an adult turtle is far more important to their population than any single nest or hatchling, some of the eggs and young need to survive, and in some places that simply isn’t happening.

If you’ve ever found turtle eggshells on the ground, that means a predator dug them up. Raccoons, skunks, foxes, coyotes, dogs, and other predators will eagerly eat turtle eggs, and nest predation is on the rise. With nest sites being developed into roads, shopping centers, and shoreline homes, turtles are forced to nest in concentrated areas. Predators learn where those egg buffets are and will return every year, sometimes lying in wait to collect eggs right out from under the turtles. These predators also do very well alongside humans, and their populations can skyrocket near developments, farms, and parks. Skunks and raccoons might thrive on a diet of human garbage, but they still eat their natural prey, including turtles and their eggs. 

As this Blanding’s Turtle lays her eggs, biologists wait for her to finish so the nest can be caged before the raccoons watching from nearby consume them.

The same predators that eat turtle eggs also eat hatchlings, but many other species eat hatchlings too, including ravens, crows, and even chipmunks. While an adult turtle’s shell protects them from most predators, a hatchling’s shell is soft and pliable. Think of them like savory Oreos roaming across the landscape; tasty snacks that predators can’t ignore. However, any hatchlings that survive their first few years have decent odds of making it to adulthood, and there are few things conservation groups do to help turtles through the most dangerous parts of their lives.

The remains of a raided turtle nest
When turtles hatch and emerge from their nests, they leave their eggshells underground. Finding eggshells on the surface means that a predator dug them up.
Protecting nests by placing a protective cage or mesh over it is one option, but doing so at a conservation scale is very labor intensive because finding females while they are nesting is difficult. If nesting is concentrated in a small area, specially designed electric fences can be used that allow turtles to pass through, but not predators. And, in some cases, eggs or hatchlings are brought into captivity to be reared inside for their first winter through a process called headstarting, allowing them to reach the size of a 3 or 4 year old turtle before being released in the spring.
Baby Turtles: Class of 2015
Every year, the ECHO center on Lake Champlain headstarts a small batch of Spiny Softshells, which are critically endangered in Vermont, in part due to shoreline development at their nesting sites. Each summer, the public is invited to assist with the release.

It is important to keep in mind that turtle conservation can’t just focus on eggs and hatchlings. Although it is easy to be very enthusiastic about headstarting, a successful headstart program takes decades and is expensive to manage. If the money and effort used to run the program could have otherwise been spent on habitat restoration that helps the adults survive, it might not be the best use of resources. Using the same resources to restore nesting habitat could allow turtles to spread their nests out to avoid predators, and can help protect females who might otherwise nest in farm fields or along roads. Many factors need to be considered when thinking about the right approach to conserve turtles.

Footage from the release of Miranda’s babies in late August, 82 days after the eggs were laid.

I spend a lot of my time thinking about the problems turtles face on a daily basis, and the day Miranda’s eggs hatched was no exception. So, when I got a message with news that the day had come, I nearly jumped out of my chair in excitement. Walking those babies down to the river, watching them explore the streambank and experience water for the first time was definitely a heartfelt moment for me. For a few minutes, I wasn’t worried about their journey ahead or everything in the world working against them. I had to take this win for what it was, and all that mattered then and there, were the nine hatchlings in front of me.