Massachusetts students give a “head-start” to the threatened Blanding's turtle.
The Great Meadows National Wildlife Refuge in Sudbury, Ma was the last of three stops that Massachusetts state representative, Niki Tsongas, made on her annual tour of Distract 5’s waterways. Every year, Representative Tsongas, tours the district on River Day, an event held to celebrate the beautiful rivers that crisscross her district. As an avid supporter of conservation and green technology, Tsongas makes it a point to recognize groups and individuals who make exceptional contributions in their community and their environment. This year, Great Meadows was proud to host the recognition ceremony for just such a group of outstanding, local youth.
Science teacher, Michel Mueller, and a coterie of young scientists from the Curtis Middle School in Sudbury, Ma, spent the last year raising a pair of Blanding’s turtles (Emmy and Andy) as part of an experimental “head-start” program designed to give these state-threatened reptiles a better chance at surviving in the wild. Much like its sister program for Atlantic salmon, the head start project gives children the opportunity to make an important connection to the natural world while learning lessons about science, conservation and personal responsibility.
Student, Amanda Rose, shares her perspective: “Everyone in my team at school was eager to help the turtles. All of the science classes took turns feeding and weighing the turtles each week as well as cleaning their tank”
The event was hosted by the Assabet River visitor’s center, a brand new facility in the Great Meadows complex designed to educate, engage and connect members of the regional community with the environment.
The visitor center, built in large part with Recovery Act funding, is an entirely green facility with geothermal and radiant heating, rain water collection systems and amongst many other features, a 6kw solar array.
As congresswoman Niki Tsongas points out, the local community has had a big hand in the creation of the Assabet River visitor’s center: “This building is a remarkable example of grassroots volunteerism driving how we spend and appropriate federal dollars. The friends of the Assabet River national wildlife refuge have worked tirelessly for 5 years to make this building a reality.”
Although mortality rates amongst Blanding turtle eggs and hatchlings may be as high as 75%, adults have very few natural predators and can live to be up to 70 years old. Habitat destruction and mortality caused by vehicles is one of the greatest concerns for this animal.
The head start program provides a safe environment for turtle hatchlings to grow to a larger size, thus increasing their chance of surviving in the wild. Because good nutrition is easy to come by in captivity, one year of growth in the classroom is worth five years of growth in the wild.
After the program, turtles are released with small radio transmitters attached to their shells so that biologists and students alike can monitor their progr ess. “Most turtles that are head-started lose about 20% of their body weight when they are released” Explained Grace, a student at Curtis Middle School. This is not unusual as the animals take some time to adjust to wild living, a learning curve that is cushioned by the energy reserves they build up in captivity.
According to student, Krystal Phu, raising turtles in the classroom is not only educational it is also intrinsically rewarding: “I never knew that taking care of Emmy and Andy would have such an impact on my life. I am really proud that my classmates, Miss. Muller and I helped save a threatened species.”
Story and video by U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service intern Chris Poulin.