Helping the Blanding's Turtle One Egg at a Time
By Dan Thompson, Natural Resources
As an ecologist for the Forest Preserve District, I’ve had the privilege to enjoy many fascinating experiences. I don’t think I could pick a favorite, but I would like to share one that is dear to me.
It was a June evening and the sun had set, leaving behind an array of red and orange hues on the horizon that quickly faded into darkness. I was in a forest preserve that was transitioning. The day shift was going silent, and the nocturnal crew was beginning to stir. I heard the calls of green frogs in the nearby marsh and the occasional screeches of two juvenile great horned owls reminding their parents they’d appreciate a bite to eat. I was in the forest preserve at that time of night to monitor the nesting activities of the Blanding’s turtle, a state-endangered species that the Forest Preserve District has been attempting to repopulate.
Seasons earlier I had placed transmitters on the shells, or “carapaces,” of several females, which made locating them easy. That night, I bounced between two pregnant females that were choosing their nesting sites, a rather tedious process because females are particular about where they lay their eggs.
Eventually, female number 80 found a nice area of remnant prairie ideal for her eggs and was digging with purpose. I stood behind, trying not to disturb her but becoming entranced with every move as she straddled the hole. She’d shift her weight to one side, reach down with her free rear leg, and pull up a small scoop of soil. She’d then deposit the soil on a small mound near the nest, shift her weight to the opposite side, and repeat the process. This continued for quite a while, giving me time to contemplate how long scenes like this have been playing out on our planet.
Once she stopped excavating, the eggs started to come, and she’d touch each with her rear foot and gingerly move it until she was happy with its placement. After the last, she began carefully filling her nest one small scoop of earth at a time, gently tucking her eggs in for a summer of incubation. She then returned to the marsh. Turtles give no parental care. Hatchlings never see their parents.
To the human eye, there was no sign the soil had ever been disturbed, but a hungry predator with a keen sense of smell would know a meal was a few inches below the surface. Predation is high in urban areas, which is why the Forest Preserve District started its Blanding’s turtle program
and why I was in a forest preserve in the middle of the night watching a turtle dig in the dirt.
Once the female left, I opened the nest and collected its contents. The eggs were headed for Willowbrook Wildlife Center, where they’d incubate and hatch. The center would then work with Forest Preserve District partner agencies to raise the hatchlings for a while before releasing them back into the preserve.
To date, Willowbrook has hatched over 2,500 Blanding’s turtles. Last year was particularly momentous because three of the tracked females that produced eggs were program hatchlings themselves over 10 years ago. (On average, it takes 13 years for female Blanding’s turtles to start breeding.) The eggs from those three turtles were the program’s third generation, and with luck, in another decade we’ll be welcoming the fourth.