A Headstart for Hatchling Turtles

June 15, 2021

Harris Center staff do many things in a year, from maintaining trails and counting migrating hawks to tracking mammals with 4th graders — but this past year, some of our staff added a new responsibility to their job description: turtle parent!

From September through May, seven staff members and their families cared for 24 snapping turtle hatchlings as part of a pilot project aimed at giving baby turtles a “headstart” on life. The turtles were reared according to Zoo New England’s headstarting protocols and released back into the wild in late May, much larger — and less vulnerable to being eaten by herons, raccoons, foxes, fish, and other predators — than if they’d overwintered out in the cold.

Headstarting programs are an especially useful conservation technique for threatened and endangered species, like Blanding’s turtles, wood turtles, and spotted turtles. One study found that survival rates for headstarted Blanding’s turtles in their first year after release were six times higher than turtles from the same population that were not headstarted.

On the left, a small hatchling snapping turtle, resting on leaves, with the word "Before" superimposed on the photo. On the right, that same turtle, eight months later and much larger, held in a person's hand for scale. (photos © Brett Amy Thelen)

Shortly after it hatched (left), this turtle weighed just 9 grams. Eight months of warmth and many meals later, it was ready for release (right) at a whopping 602 grams (1.3 pounds). You can see more photos — and a video from the release day — here.

Zoo New England has had great success with headstarting turtles in Massachusetts classrooms, but New Hampshire does not currently have any active headstarting programs. The Harris Center hopes to demonstrate that school-based headstarting programs can be successful here — starting with non-endangered species, like snappers and painted turtles. Due to the pandemic, we couldn’t bring the project to local schools until May, when ConVal High School’s Topics in Biology class helped care for five of the turtles before releasing them back into the wild.

Next year, we hope to pilot headstarting projects in several additional local classrooms, as we work to connect even more kids to turtle conservation. In the words of Harris Center turtle project lead and Community Programs Director Susie Spikol, “Giving kids a chance to have a hands-on connection to a wild animal in need of conservation is a win-win for both the kids and the turtles.”

This innovative project was made possible with support from our 50th Anniversary Fund.

Contact Us

For more information on the Harris Center’s turtle headstarting efforts, please contact Susie Spikol by email.