Every spring, the Coastal Painted Turtle Project group releases endangered baby Western Painted turtles onto protected nesting beaches in several of Metro Vancouver’s regional parks – more than 400 turtles to date.
An 18-month old Western Painted turtle is enjoying a swim in Aldergrove Regional Park. This is his very first time swimming in the wild. Up until today, he lived in a tank at the Greater Vancouver Zoo, where he was raised by members of the Coastal Painted Turtle Project.
Back at the Zoo, Andrea Gielens, Coastal Painted Turtle Project Biologist, is preparing baby turtles for release. “We collect eggs from the last remaining historical populations that are further out in the valley towards Agassiz and we take them back to Greater Vancouver Zoo,” she said.
The turtles are incubated for approximately 55 to 65 days. After they hatch, they are reared over the winter. So that they grow throughout the cold months, the turtles are kept warm and awake to avoid hibernation and released about a year later.
The Coastal Painted Turtle Project is dedicated to protecting Western Painted turtles. This endangered species is the only remaining freshwater turtle native to BC. Every spring, the group releases baby turtles into several of Metro Vancouver’s regional parks – more than 400 turtles to date. Each has its own microchip.
Andrea takes another baby turtle from the tank, weighs it and put it in a bin with others. “The microchip number is unique for each turtle. It goes back in our database and it links back up to all the information we’ve collected on that turtle since it hatched,” she said. “So we can continue to track their growth once they’re released into the wild and we’ll continue to track their genetic lines once they start laying eggs as well.”
The release site is at a small beach at Aldergrove Regional Park, which was built specifically for turtles to help give them their best shot at reaching their 60 year life expectancy. Much of the Western painted turtle’s natural habitat in BC has been destroyed by development or invasive plants.
“When they hatch, they’re about 5 grams. Today we released them, probably an average of about 60 grams. At that size we know they have about a 90 to 95% survival,” said Andrea. ” So having a turtle that that’s large means that most predators will not be able to eat these turtles.”
Burnaby Lake Regional Park also has a protected turtle beach created in partnership with The Ministry of Forests and Natural Resources, Metro Vancouver Regional Parks, the Burnaby Lake Park Association and the Coastal Painted Turtle Project. Members of the Coastal Painted Turtle Project check up on the turtles daily in the springtime. On this evening, biologists Aimee Mitchell and Deanna MacTavish find a female turtle on a main path. She was born in the wild, so she doesn’t have a microchip. Instead, the number 134 is hand-painted on her shell.
“Every turtle that we encounter in the park, we give them each an individual number. It just makes it easier for identification,” said Deanna. They know turtle 134 very well. She is about 30 years old. Last year, she nested near the parking lot and now she keeps going back. Deanna and Aimee take her to turtle beach to encourage her to nest and lay eggs at that protected site. But turtle 134 is not cooperating. She heads for the lake so that she can swim across it to the parking lot.
A different turtle, number 179, laid eggs on the beach during the previous evening. Mother turtles leave the area after they’ve finished nesting. A protective cage is placed over nests to discourage predators such as raccoons, coyotes and even humans.
Recently, blood samples taken from the Western Painted turtles in Burnaby Lake Regional Park led to a surprising discovery. “In fact, there were two genetically distinct populations which indicates that these turtles are genetically unique to the region, at least since the last ice age,” said Deanna.
Meanwhile, a second attempt to get turtle 134 to nest on the protected beach isn’t working out, as she marches back to the lake again. But in general, this beach has been a big hit with the turtles. The success of the program is prompting plans to establish other nesting sites.
Markus Merkens is Natural Resource Management Specialist with Metro Vancouver Regional Parks. “We are looking at installing an additional Western Painted Turtle nesting beach towards the west side of the lake to provide an alternate site for them,” he said. “We’re hoping that within a year and a half we can introduce turtles to that beach and then they will begin to be as productive as they are at this beach within a number of years.”
The Coastal Painted Turtle Project is partnering with Metro Vancouver in five regional parks, with plans to expand the program each year.
Fun fact – a group of turtles is called a bale.
Turtles should only be approached and handled by trained researchers. See more Metro Vancouver Regional Parks stories in in our video gallery.