Endangered Blanding’s turtles released into wild in south Cook County

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Turtles
This is one of 11 Blanding's turtles released into the wild in south Cook County. (Photo provided, taken by Jeff Nelson)
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Eleven baby Blanding’s turtles released into the wild through a brand-new partnership between Shedd Aquarium and Forest Preserves of Cook County

Information provided by the Forest Preserves of Cook County

CHICAGO, Ill. (July 24, 2022) – This week, officials from Shedd Aquarium and the Forest Preserves of Cook County released 11 baby Blanding’s turtles (Emydoidea blandingii) into a forest preserve in south Cook County, helping to bolster the native population of these state-endangered animals. Through a head-start program used to stabilize or re-establish animal populations that have suffered significant declines, the animals were raised for around a year behind-the-scenes at the aquarium by experts who care for over 25 various turtle species.

Reptilian rescue

All 11 turtles came from an original female turtle that was gravid, or carrying eggs, and found by Forest Preserves wildlife staff in a Cook County preserve. She was the first Blanding’s turtle to be found in this preserve in nearly two decades, and with the help of the Forest Preserve District of DuPage County, she laid her eggs in a safe environment, from which the hatchlings were then transported to Shedd.

“This was a new and meaningful opportunity to bolster an endangered population of native turtles right here in our own backyard,” said Dr. Matt O’Connor, senior staff veterinarian at Shedd Aquarium. “Applying our animal care and welfare skills here at Shedd Aquarium to benefit conservation in the wild helps to further illustrate our mission and why we’re here.”

During the turtles’ year of rearing at Shedd, the animal care team fed them a variety of live food so that they could learn to catch prey in preparation for their eventual release. Shedd staff also kept contact to a minimum, so the turtles did not become habituated to humans. The exception to this minimal contact was the occasional check-up to monitor and track the turtles’ increasing size: an important measure to ensure a greater chance of survival once released.

Back to the wild

In preparation for reintroduction to the wild, the turtles were weighed and measured one last time. Staff from Shedd and the Forest Preserves, along with Audubon Great Lakes interns, who are part of the Forest Preserves’ Conservation Corps who are working on ecological restoration at the location, then waded deep into protected wetlands to release the turtles into their natural habitat out of sight of predators. Many turtles explored their new environment, plunging into the water, while others rested on floating branches.

Forest Preserves partners will track the turtles in the years to come as part of their continuous active monitoring of turtles living at this location and other preserves across Cook County.

“We know of only three locations in the Forest Preserves with a population of Blanding’s turtles. I’d really consider just one to have a population of a moderately healthy size. That’s where these turtles are being released, and it should increase the population by about a third. So, this is a great opportunity to support this keystone species. It’s exciting to see, and we’re grateful to Shedd Aquarium for their partnership to make it happen,” said Chris Anchor, the senior wildlife biologist for the Forest Preserves of Cook County.

Blanding’s background

The release of these turtles helps to bolster their population, a crucial venture, as the turtles are endangered in Illinois due to nesting habitat loss and degradation, predation and collection for the pet trade. Blanding’s turtles, known for their distinctive yellow throat and chin as well as their apparent permanent “smile” due to this coloring, are an important local species that serve as an environmental indicator, meaning their health reflects the health of their environment.

This will be Shedd’s fifth year of successfully rearing Blanding’s turtle hatchlings for release in local natural habitats (and the first year of partnering with the Forest Preserves on this project). While aquarium guests will not be able to interact with these specific Great Lakes turtles, guests can connect with local wildlife or other turtle species by coming face-to-face with them at Shedd’s At Home on the Great Lakes exhibit.

Action Days and future programming

The aquarium’s goal is to continue contributing to conservation and restoration by participating in the Blanding’s turtle head-start programs when called upon by partners and other efforts that help revitalize local aquatic ecosystems like Shedd Aquarium Action Days. Action Days provide opportunities for community members to learn about native aquatic systems, woodlands and prairies firsthand while taking action that directly supports the success of these ecosystems, including many within the Forest Preserves. Upcoming programming includes litter cleanups, river planting and coastal and woodland habitat restoration.

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