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Painted, by numbers
The quiet country pond is just a short walk across a field from busy 16 Avenue in South Langley. Despite the relatively easy access, it’s quiet here on a cool, late winter morning. Even birds are scarce — perhaps frightened off by a pair of visitors.
A light breeze gently ruffles the surface of the water, but it’s what Andrea Gielens knows is hidden beneath the waterline, and along the grassy banks that is making waves within the zoological community.
The pond, part of Campbell Valley Park, is home to a small number of western painted turtles.
Named for the colourful and elaborate markings on their undersides, the turtles, which are native to the region, are classified as a species at risk of extinction.
In Washington and Oregon states as well as in B.C.’s Interior, western painted turtles populations are stable. But that is not the case here, said Gielens.
In addition to the Langley park, a few individuals remain on the Sunshine Coast and at an Agassiz farm. But thanks to the introduction of another, more aggressive species of turtle — the red-eared slider — the number of western painted turtles in coastal populations has dwindled to the point that human intervention has been deemed necessary.
Gielens, a biologist who specializes in species at risk, is employed by Guelph, Ontario-based Wildlife Preservation Canada.
She is currently working at the Greater Vancouver Zoo in Aldergrove — about a mile from where she grew up — on an ambitious project which aims to return 73 juvenile western painted turtles to the wild later this summer.
For now, the turtles are being kept in black plastic tubs inside a small heated barn at the zoo, where they were hatched last August. Since then, their only job has been to eat and grow large enough to be released safely into the wild.
Normally, the turtles would hibernate, frozen solid through the winter, but if these creatures had been left to do that, “chances are a lot wouldn’t survive,” Gielens said.
Rather than risk losing more of the already endangered hatchlings, the turtles were brought indoors and kept awake through the winter, being fed spongey cubes of minced seafood, fortified with a calcium supplement. Once a week, they gobble down a treat of crickets, mealworms, bloodworms and brine shrimp.
Gielens and her colleagues — two Greater Vancouver Zoo employees — share the duties of caring for their tiny reptilian charges. The project is modeled closely on a successful program that has been going on in the U.S. for the past 20 years.
The results of that study have given Gielens reason to be optimistic.
“They found that released turtles lay eggs and have offspring at the same rate as wild turtles,” she said.
The juveniles will be released in August, when they have reached at least 30 grams. More than 90 per cent are expected to survive.
Gielens is currently working with Metro Vancouver for permits to release the turtles at the same Agassiz farm where the eggs were collected as well as into the pond at Campbell Valley Park.
There is also a plan to affix tiny transmitters to the animals “and follow them around to see what kind of habitat they use.”
This is the second year that the Langley biologist has worked on the project.
Last year, a dozen eggs were retrieved from a beach on the Sunshine Coast — one that is popular with both people and their dogs — and brought to the zoo.
“If we had left them there (on the beach) to hatch they were unlikely to have survived,” said Gielens. “Someone was going to step on them.”
A third batch of eggs has already been collected. It is anticipated that they will hatch this August and be ready for release in the summer of 2015.
All 12 of last year’s eggs hatched and were successfully returned to the spot from which they were taken. They’re being monitored and are doing well, said Gielens.
“Immediately after they were released, they began eating. They knew what they were looking for,” she said.
“At one site, we had a bit of a National Geographic moment.”
Near the spot where the juveniles were introduced, there were a number of adults basking. The young turtles swam over to meet the resident adults and they all swam off together.
“It was a real Disney moment,” she laughed.
Unlike a Disney movie, however, there is no guarantee of a happy ending for the western painted turtle.
Both the eggs and hatchlings are vulnerable to everything from human activity to animal predation, to vegetation.
In addition to the danger of nests being stepped on or dug up, the roots of fast-growing invasive plants can actually grow right through the eggs, or even newly hatched turtles, which are packed together tightly and remain motionless during hibernation.
Poaching of nesting females can also be a problem.
Another reason biologists speculate that turtle populations are declining is that urban growth is forcing them out of their natural habitat, leaving fewer and fewer places that are suitable for nesting and basking.
One of the greatest threats to the western painted turtle’s survival, however, is competition from red-eared sliders. Named for the characteristic red stripe along the sides of their heads, the breed most commonly sold as pets, are not native to B.C. and therefore are classified as an invasive species.
Cute and small, turtles theoretically make great starter pets for children. What people don’t think about when they buy the tiny turtles, said Gielens, is that they will grow.
“They get big and smelly and bite-y,” she said.
“I’ve had a turtle take a chunk out of my hand the size of a quarter — that’s less adorable.”
Add to that, the fact turtles can live upward of 50 years in captivity, and it becomes more of a commitment than most people are willing to make.
Once the novelty wears off, the unwanted pets are often dumped into the closest pond where, biologists recently discovered, they are beginning to successfully breed.
When red-eared sliders are captured, they are humanely destroyed. It’s unfortunate, but there’s no choice, said Gielens.
Most have developed respiratory problems because they are not suited to a cool, damp climate like B.C.’s.
“They came from Florida. They can live here, but it’s not good for them.”
The best solution, rather than having to euthanize them, is to simply decrease the number of turtles being sold and subsequently released into the wild, said Gielens.
She approached the City of Langley earlier this year and asked them to consider passing a bylaw to prevent the sale of turtles and turtle eggs at local pet stores.
“We’re trying to go after every municipality,” she said.
“We have a generally good idea where the pet stores are that are non-compliant.”
The sale of turtles falls under the federal wildlife act, but having locally enforceable regulations in place can only help reduce the numbers of red-eared sliders in the wild, Gielens explained during her presentation to the City.
Council declined to pass a bylaw, opting instead to change its business licences to include a ban on the sale of both turtles and their eggs. The only pet store within City limits — PetSmart — indicated that it does not sell either.
Gielens would have preferred a bylaw, but said awareness is one of the main goals of the western painted turtle rehabilitation program.
“It’s getting the public to know that 99 per cent of the time, when they see a turtle at a pet store, they’re illegal,” she said.
“If not, they’re likely endangered.”