Recovery: Rare Turtle Gets a Second Chance

Only 300 Plymouth redbellies remained - making them arguably the continent's rarest turtle. They were confined to one county. And they weren't breeding. What saved the redbelly from extinction?

“Conservation” is no longer enough. Instead of just saving what’s left we need to restore what’s lost.

Neither I nor half a dozen of my colleagues at the Massachusetts Division of Fisheries and Game could identify the strikingly beautiful turtle at our feet. It was about ten times the size of a mature painted turtle — with a black, domed carapace, a crimson plastron, and a black neck. “It can’t be from Massachusetts,” someone ventured, wrongly. The year was 1971.

Presently, mobile encyclopedia Jim Cardoza appeared, informing us that it was a female Plymouth red-bellied turtle. In addition to being beautiful she was dead, having drowned in one of our fyke nets we’d set to sample fish in the Billington Sea (which drains into Plymouth Harbor and was named for its discoverer, Mayflower passenger Francis Billington who mistook this freshwater pond for part of the ocean).

Federally endangered Plymouth redbellies (or “northern red-bellied cooters,” as herpetologists prefer) exist only in Plymouth County, Massachusetts. They’re a “disjunct population” of the red-bellied cooter, whose northern range ends 250 miles south of Massachusetts.

While northern and southern populations are considered one species, there are subtle but probably important genetic differences. Anyone suggesting that we shouldn’t worry about Plymouth redbellies because the “same turtle” is secure along the coastal plain from New Jersey to North Carolina and inland to West Virginia ought not to be entrusted with wine selection. Virtually all wines are made from one species of grape.

In 1971 the Massachusetts Division of Fisheries and Game existed to serve sportsmen who provided our salaries by buying hunting and fishing licensees. The agency’s basic management philosophy was: If you can’t legally kill it, it’s not wildlife.

At that time there were, at best, 300 Plymouth redbellies on the planet, most geriatric. Reproduction had all but ceased. Extinction appeared imminent.

Cut to July 26, 2015. I am standing on a dirt-covered bridge over the narrows of East Head Pond at the Myles Standish State Forest in Carver, Massachusetts. Surrounding me is the largest pitch pine/scrub oak forest in New England. This redbelly habitat is protected by the state forest, sprawling Boy Scout reserves to the east and west, and to the south by land recently purchased by my old agency, now appropriately renamed the Division of Fisheries and Wildlife.

The morning sun is hot and bright, the air fragrant with the first blooms of sweet pepperbush. In front of newly opened water lilies a dozen largemouth bass hold in the light flow. Where the pond widens and wanders east, a carpet of green fanwort underlies the waveless surface.

As the sun climbs, redbellies haul out to join glistening baskers on deadfalls. Several are the size of the dead one I’d seen 44 years earlier. They share one log with painted turtles. In the water both species ease their heads into the air, carapaces barely showing.

A Plymouth redbelly (left) and a painted turtle basking. Photo © Bill Byrne, MassWildlife
A Plymouth redbelly (left) and a painted turtle basking. Photo © Bill Byrne, MassWildlife

A Headstart Program…For Turtles

Public priorities changed during the 1970s. In 1983 the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service established the Massasoit National Wildlife Refuge, primarily to recover redbellies.

In 1985 there were no redbellies in East Head Pond. But that was the year the division’s robust Natural Heritage and Endangered Species Program (non-existent when I worked for the agency) began its “headstart” program by which captive hatchling redbellies are raised all winter. Come spring, they’re about the size of mature painted turtles and therefore pretty safe from predators. It’s the largest freshwater turtle headstart program in the world.

Last year division biologists counted 40 redbelly nests around East Head, every one constructed by a headstarted female. “Except for a small bog-turtle project in Tennessee, we’re the only one to confirm headstarts reproducing in the wild,” says Dr. Thomas French, director of the Natural Heritage and Endangered Species Program. “Now we’re on the verge of seeing reproduction by headstart offspring.”

At the most prolific redbelly pond a consultant checks for turtle tracks twice a day during nesting season, then places a predator-proof cage over nests he finds. For headstarting he takes only two or three hatchlings from each clutch of 10 or 12, thereby ensuring genetic diversity.

No hatchlings are taken from East Head, and nests aren’t caged. Predators consume the vast majority of eggs and hatchlings. But now, with natural reproduction augmented by only a few headstart releases, enough turtles make it to adulthood so that East Head’s population is stable and maybe increasing.

The division farms out hatchlings to 23 volunteer groups — mostly schools. So far, it has released 3,878 headstarts in suitable habitat. The wild population has increased by a factor of about 10 and is thought to be reproducing in at least 13 ponds and two river systems.

Toward noon Brian Bastarache, a teacher at Bristol County Agricultural High School in Dighton, Massachusetts, joins me on the bridge. Bastarache and his students raised 36 hatchlings this past winter, the most by far of all groups.

Redbellies are vegetarians, so headstarts are fed greens like leaf lettuce. They beg by racing toward the edge of the aquarium and paddling frantically. Heat lamps for basking and submersible heaters are essential. One volunteer group doubted any turtle could make it only on greens, so it gave its hatchlings krill, killing the lot.

Bastarache isn’t just raising turtles; he’s raising turtle advocates. “We do applied math and science by weighing and measuring our turtles every week, then crunching the numbers,” he says. “That’s more fun than book math and science.”

At the Boy Scout’s Camp Cachalot, embracing more redbelly habitat, I meet one of Bastarache’s students — Dan Kyne. “Headstarting is something I’ll remember all my life,” he tells me. “I’ll always be able to say that when I was a high-school kid I helped save turtles.”

Photo © Bill Byrne, MassWildlife
These two turtles are siblings. The one on top spent the winter in the wild. The one on the bottom was headstarted. Photo: © Bill Byrne, MassWildlife

Alien Turtles Infest Redbelly Waters

Headstarting has bought the Plymouth redbelly lots of time, but it’s not a cure-all. Threats remain. Suppression of fire, with which pitch pine, scrub oak and redbellies evolved, is reducing open areas for nesting. Turtle predators like skunks and raccoons are proliferating on human garbage. The bass and fanwort I’d seen are aliens. Bass take hatchlings; and, by depleting dissolved oxygen, decaying fanwort is a suspect in recent winterkill of hibernating adults.

And now alien turtles — red-eared sliders — infest redbelly water. Turtle farms in the South pump out red-eared sliders by the millions, selling them to the Chinese and Buddhists for food and the ancient tradition of fangsheng (“release of life”) in which the devout supposedly generate positive karma by the “kindness” of freeing animals.

But releasing aggressive and frequently diseased red-eared sliders devastates native turtles, not just in Massachusetts but around the nation and globe. “I couldn’t understand why red-eared sliders were suddenly exploding,” says Dr. French. “Now I think these Buddhist ceremonies explain it. While we’re releasing 100 [redbelly] juveniles they’re releasing 100 [slider] adults.”

Fortunately, there’s an influential and ecologically literate monk at the Grace Gratitude Buddhist Temple in Manhattan. The Venerable Benkong Shi upbraids his flock, renaming their illegal ritual fangsi (“release of death”) and reporting those who engage in it to environmental police.

Recently Benkong accepted French’s invitation to visit division headquarters in Westboro, Massachusetts. “No,” he replied when French suggested that fangsheng practitioners release headstarted redbellies instead of sliders. “They will release them one day, eat them the next.”

So French and Benkong have come up with a safe substitute for red-eared sliders. They’ll invite Buddhists to the division’s trout hatcheries and have them perform fangsheng on the fish before they’re stocked.

From Camp Cachalot I return to East Head Pond. Now the big log that had been in pitch-pine shadows is lit by the afternoon sun. It’s collecting more and bigger baskers.

As I stand on the bridge watching the turtle show I think of all the bad news about fish and wildlife that gets reported, about all the good news that doesn’t, and about how I’ve been as guilty as any writer in perpetuating the imbalance.

Photo © Mike Jones/American Turtle Observatory
Photo © Mike Jones/American Turtle Observatory

Editor’s Note: This is the second installment of a regular column called “Recovery” by Ted Williams.

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  1. Jack Shaw says:

    Very informative article! Interesting turtle–article does a good job of describing briefly the natural history of this critter.

  2. Rose Paul says:

    Beautiful story, great work!

  3. Gillian Langton says:

    I am not in America and I know nothing personally about fishing, but I found this article on Turtle conservation really fascinating,and encouraging, because, as you say, there’s so much bad news about wildlife of all kinds one can think it’s all coming to an end because of man.
    I especially enjoyed the bits about the interaction with the Buddhist community, it gives a whole new perspective on Buddhists’ attitudes to animals! I’m sure the way you’re going, by involving the Venerable Benkong, is going to make a difference…I do hope so and will eagerly look out for the next episode!
    Thanks for all you do for wildlife,

    Gillian Langton

  4. Laura Judith Bonfiglio says:

    Yes, it is wonderful to hear some good news regarding the restoration of a such a rare turtle! My dear friend, John Behler (former curator of Herpetology @ the Bronx Zoo) was a tremendous influence on my love of reptiles. It brings back so many wonderful memories of our nature walks. Thank you! Laura Bonfiglio

  5. Karen Burke says:

    How wonderful that this is all done and such great accomplishments have been done in the last 44 years. How beautiful they are!!

  6. Stevie Lee Honaker, Ph.D. says:

    What an inspiring story of one of our government wildlife agencies. Thank you! One would wish the Bureau of Land Management would have honored the Wild Free-Roaming Horse & Burro Act of 1971 with a policy such as you described in your article and our Congress stop their continual attempts to decimate the wolf populaton by being set again to repeal the Endangered Species Act. These are just two examples of the travesty committed to the balance of Nature.

  7. Helen Miller says:

    I Love Ted Williams, the nature advocate and naturalist! I love baseball, too but would rather read what Ted Williams, naturalist has to say than anything about baseball. I’ve read articles by Ted mostly in Audubon Magazine. Inspiring! Thank to you, Ted Williams~

  8. Dr.Jean V Marani says:

    Fascinating article– so glad to see failing species getting new hope.

  9. Sara Hutchinson says:

    Thank you Camp Cachelot, Ted Williams, Plymouth, Mass. volunteers and everyone else who is helping to save these lovely turtles that I had never heard about before.

  10. Thomas Ledford says:

    This is why I love the Nature Conservancy. It’s good to read good news regarding wildlife conservation.

  11. marcy bernstein says:

    We need to restore all the animals we have lost, from
    the smallest to the largest.

  12. Taina Kaarla says:

    Interesting article in Plymouth red-bellied turtles. Love reptiles. Avid nature person!

  13. Linda Standish says:

    Nice to know that good things are happening at Myles Standish State Forest! Linda Standish

  14. Susanne Lucas says:

    My husband and I live on Bloody Pond in Plymouth County MA and we are thrilled to say we have seen several red-belly cooters on our pond. I even saw one up near our garden, roaming on land : ) A great article, thanks.

  15. mike cong says:

    Thanks for the update. I still remember reading about this population in a old national geographic magazine from the 80’s. Glad population is recovering and good people working with them.