Freshwater Turtle Conservation
Minnesota, with it’s 10,000+ lakes and miles of winding river, is a veritable paradise for freshwater turtles and many other wildlife species. There are nine species of freshwater turtles that call Minnesota home, from the more commonly sighted snapping and painted turtles to the relatively elusive softshell turtles. Unfortunately, freshwater turtles today face a variety of threats that are putting their future in Minnesota at risk.
Why are turtles in trouble?
Unfortunately, as a result of habitat loss & degradation, road mortality, nest predation, and poaching, and climate change, turtles today are in trouble. Of the nine species found in Minnesota, Blanding’s and wood turtles are particularly vulnerable and are state listed as Threatened. Significant population declines in recent decades necessitate the need for action.
Why are turtles important?
In addition to providing an important connection to nature for kids and adults alike, Minnesota’s turtles provide us with many ecosystem services. Turtles are a crucial member of the freshwater community, keeping waterbodies clean and healthy by consuming decaying matter that can spread disease. They also disperse seeds of native plants, cycle nutrients, and create habitat for other pond critters.
What is the Zoo doing?
The Minnesota Zoo is partnering with other state agencies to better understand the threats facing Minnesota’s turtles. Using radio telemetry and GPS transmitters, we are tracking threatened turtles to learn about habitat use and nesting locations. These data will provide information on turtle needs and help to inform effective management strategies. We are also investigating road mortality impacts on turtles by surveying sites around the greater metro and testing the effectiveness of mitigation strategies such as small animal exclusion fencing.
In addition, the Zoo manages a growing turtle headstarting program. Turtles in the wild are threatened by predators and natural and human-caused disturbances, and they are especially at-risk during their first year of life. Wildlife biologists are rearing hatchling wood turtles at the Zoo during their most vulnerable life stage. At approximately one year of age, the young turtles are released back into the wild to help boost local populations.
What can you do to help?
- Turtles are particularly active on roads in the late spring (May-June) and in early fall (September). When safe to do so, assist turtles across roads in the direction they are heading. See the video here for tips on how to safely handle turtles.
- Do not disturb turtle nests and keep pets leashed near waterbodies where turtles are likely to be present.
- Leave shorelines natural: encourage native vegetation and leave fallen trees – an important resource for basking turtles.
- Don’t litter! This attracts turtle predators such as raccoons, skunks, and foxes, which readily feed on turtle eggs and young.
- Keep stormwater free of pollutants – it drains into turtle habitat and can impact water quality and turtle food sources. Contaminants include: pet waste, sidewalk/road salt, pesticides, and lawn fertilizers.
- If you are able, please donate to the MN Zoo to help fund future turtle research. Together we can build populations of threatened turtles and keep common species common.
Key Zoo Staff: Tricia Markle, Wildlife Conservation Specialist – Turtles, Minnesota Zoo
Seth Stapleton, Director of Conservation, Minnesota Zoo