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Thursday, September 18, 2008

Sonoma State University Saving California Turtles

SSU Head Start Program for turtles sees first hatchlings effort to halt shocking decline of reptiles in California - Slow and steady is not winning the race.

Rapidly shrinking numbers of California’s only native aquatic turtle species - the Western Pond Turtle - has sparked the development of a pioneering partnership between Sonoma State University and two Bay Area zoos to save the reptile from extinction in California.

Sonoma State Biology professor Nick Geist successfully hatched the first six young turtles last Friday from 57 eggs collected this summer from an undisclosed Lake County location. Geist and his graduate students, and Oakland Zoo staffers, spent the summer monitoring a Lake County site for mother turtles and followed them to the nests where they collected their eggs.

PHOTO: Students working form a ‘‘blind’’ to watch the turtles

The eggs were placed in five incubators in his lab at the Rohnert Park campus. Young turtles began to emerge last Friday. More are hatching daily in the first-of-its-kind breeding program for this species in the state.

“Slow and steady is not winning the race for this species,” says Geist. “The turtles must be saved before the population reaches critically low levels.”

Geist has solicited the support of Bay Area zoos in a captive-breeding program - a “head start” program - to protect the young turtles, who at the size of a quarter at birth often become tender morsels for predators such as bullfrogs, skunks and foxes. These predators, as well as the loss of 90% of its habitat, have contributed to a shocking decline of the species.

This past Friday, the first hatchlings went to the Oakland Zoo for care until they are large enough to be released back to wild. Plans are to send the second batch to the San Francisco Zoo on Friday. The SF Zoo plans to create a public education exhibit about the project at its Koret Animal Research Center.

Geist envisions a network of zoos throughout the state that will raise the hatchlings in captivity for almost a year to facilitate the immediate conservation and ultimate recovery of the Western Pond Turtle in California.

Geist is also using the program to determine at what temperature the sex of the turtle is decided so that better conservation management techniques can be designed.

The Western Pond Turtle (Clemmys marmorata) has declined precipitously, or been eliminated entirely, in so many parts of its former range, that it is now protected by the Department of Fish and Game as a California Special Concern species.

Originally, the pond turtle ranged from Mexico to the Canadian border in a narrow strip along the coast. It lives to be 60 years old and its shell gets as large as 12 inches in length.
Once estimated to have populations in the millions, it has virtually disappeared from urban areas of southern and northern California and most of the Central Valley.

For further information, contact:
Dr. Nicholas R. Geist, Associate Professor of Biology,
(707) 664-3056,
Nancy Filippi, Director of Marketing, Oakland Zoo,
(510) 632-9525, ext. 132,
Gwendolyn Tornatore, Public Relations Manager,
San Francisco Zoo, (415) 753-7174,

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