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John Ball Zoo raising baby turtles to address population decline

The 12 baby turtles at John Ball Zoo are currently hibernating and will be rereleased into the wild in the spring.

GRAND RAPIDS, Mich. — To help the conservation of eastern box turtles, John Ball Zoo is raising baby turtles to release into the wild this spring.

The program is a partnership between the zoo, Grand Valley State University (GVSU) and the Pierce Cedar Creek Institute. Called "head starting," the process of raising the turtles and releasing them back into the wild helps protect the turtles from predators.

"It's actually taking eggs that we get from wild turtles at Pier Cedar Creek. We incubate them, and then once they hatch, we actually set them up in their own little spot," said Maureen Lewis, an animal hospital zookeeper. "And then as they develop throughout the time we have them, they get really big, they get fed every single day, and we're finding that this is actually helping them survive that initial year of their life because they're getting a lot bigger."

According to the zoo, the eastern box turtle population in Michigan is on the decline, and the turtles are essential to the ecosystem.

“Many people don’t realize that the turtles we sometimes see in our backyards or crossing the street are imperiled, and this important project helps us understand how we can further protect this valuable species,” said Bill Flanagan, conservation manager.

A graduate student from GVSU will study the efficacy of this process, which has the potential to be translated to other species in need.

“There are many reptilian and amphibian species that are also in population decline, and what we learn here could help us protect box turtles and other species throughout the state,” said Matt Dykstra, field station manager at Pierce Cedar Creek Institute.  

John Ball Zoo has been head starting turtles since 2007. Over its past three seasons of head starting, 74 turtles have been released. 

Currently, the 12 baby turtles at John Ball Zoo are hibernating. They will be released at the Pierce Cedar Creek Institute, where they were originally living, in the spring.

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