Wednesday, June 4, 2008

Cooters swim to new life, natural home

Turtles get headstart

MIDDLEBORO--Cooter # 2-2-1 slowly made its way toward the golden waters of Great Quittacas pond in Middleboro on its way to a new life--one where survival goes to the fittest.
Turtle 2-2-1, an endangered Northern red-bellied cooter, was one of 135 other cooters released into the wild after being kept safe by human hands since they hatched more than a year ago.
Whether # 2-2-1 survives will depend on a handful of factors: weather, enemies, food supply and the turtle’s own ability to survive the real world and not the protective environment of a glass or plastic tank kept clean and stocked by human volunteers.
“They’re on their own now,” said Peter Mirick, ranger with the state Department of Enviromental protection, or MassWildlife , as he watched the turtles flap their legs and pop their heads out of the water like mini-periscopes dotting the surface.
The release of the Northern red-bellied cooter has become a yearly ritual since 1986 when MassWildlife began a head start program to help save the population of the cooter, a species of turtle that was nearly extinct when the program began.
Plymouth County is the only county in the state that has any wild cooters in its ponds.
More than 150 “cooperators” or volunteers from area colleges and universities, high schools, environmental organizations and individuals have cared for the cooters since they hatched last spring.
On Monday MassWildlife and its volunteers sent their turtles to an uncertain future full of hope.
Before their release, a blessing was given for their survival during a ritual cleansing ceremony performed by Chief Alton Windsong Blake, head of the Assonet tribe of the Wampanoag nation.
Chief Windsong said the turtle holds a special place in American Indian religion and life.
“Man was born on the back of the turtle,” Windsong said as he burned sage in a shell and wafted the smoke with a feather around the volunteers gathered at the causeway on Long Point Road for the release.
“We all want to go home and these turtles want to go to their home,” Windsong said.
When hatched from eggs, cooters are about 2.5 inches long and fall prey to bullfrogs, pickerel and bass.
The cooter population in the state has plummeted due to several environmental factors including the destruction of its habit from development, insecticides and the decimation of its food source--aquatic vegetation.
The females do not lay eggs until they are 13, adding to its decrease and often the erratic winter weather kills eggs and hatchlings when there is snow or unseasonably cold weather during the sping nesting time.
In 1986 when the capture and release program began, cooters were nearly extinct in the state.
They are listed as endangered by the state and threatened at the federal level.
After eggs hatch in June or July, cooters are given to responsible parties to care for until they are big enough to be released into the wild.
At about 5 inches long, the turtles released Monday will be too big to be swallowed by other pond dwellers.
Without the head start program, Mirick said most cooter hatchlings are gobbled up by predators.
“If they are too big to be swallowed they have a good chance of making it,” Mirick said.
Each turtle is marked with notches around its shell, weighed measured and released.
Cooter # 2-2-1 has two notches on one panel of its shell, another two notches on another panel, and another notch on another panel as identification.
Since MassWildlife’s program began 24 years ago, more than 2,500 cooters have been returned to state ponds.
The first releases were in seven ponds in Plymouth and Carver. Today there are more than 12 ponds where released cooters are fighting to survive.
Great Quittacas Pond and its adjoining neighbor Assawompsett Pond were chosen as release sites about six years ago because they lead into other ponds and rivers that officials hope the cooters will repopulate in the future.