Red-Bellied Turtles

A northern red-bellied cooter (a freshwater turtle)

This post is not about sea turtles, but it's about northern red-bellied cooters. This is a type of freshwater turtle that lives in the Eastern United States, including New Jersey, Pennsylvania, Delaware, Maryland, and Virginia. Interestingly, there is also a population of this species that lives in Plymouth County, MA, several hundred miles away from any other known populations.

It used to be thought that Plymouth red-bellied turtles were a separate species, but DNA testing has shown that they are the same species as those that live in other states. However, the Plymouth population is unique enough to be considered as a genetically distinct population. In the 1980's the numbers of red-bellied turtles in Massachusetts was very low, only about 200 - 300 animals, so they were placed on the United States and Massachusetts Endangered Species List.

In order to increase the number of red-bellied turtles in Massachusetts, scientists started a project called a "head-start" program. In the wild, many turtle eggs are eaten by animals such as raccoons and skunks. To prevent this, scientists began putting wire cages over red-bellied turtle nests so that the eggs would not be eaten. When the baby turtles hatch in the fall, some of them are brought to institutions like the New England Aquarium, and they are raised over the winter.

This way, the turtles grow large enough so that they will not be eaten by fish, crows, frogs, etc. Over the past twenty years, the head-start program has increased the population of red-bellied turtles in Massachusetts up to 2,000 - 3,000 animals! In fact, some head-started turtles have now become old enough to lay eggs of their own.

We thank the many individuals and organizations that have helped red-bellied turtles over the years, especially Terry Graham, Tom French, and Dave Taylor, and the late Allison Haskell. We will keep you updated on the progress of these babies, which will be released to the wild later this spring.

- Dr. Innis


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