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MOSES Scientists’ Efforts Give Red-bellied Cooter Headstart

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MassWildlife, in cooperation with other agencies, is working hard to protect and extend the Red-bellied Cooter turtle population. Each year, the agency collects about 100 hatchlings and raises them in captivity for the first year. MOSES member Jonathan Regosin, an environmental analyst with MassWildlife, Division of Fisheries & Wildlife, explains, “At the time of release back into the wild, these turtles are approximately the size of a 3-year-old, making them less of a target for predators.” 

Since the Natural Heritage and Endangered Species began running a “headstarting” program for Red-bellied Cooters in 1980, here in Massachusetts at just one site, the Myles Standish Forest in Carver, 350 turtles have been successfully released.

The Red-bellied Cooter is a state and federally listed endangered species. By the late 1980's the Massachusetts population was restricted to fewer than 15 ponds in Plymouth County.  At that time, the Massachusetts Division of Fisheries and Wildlife initiated a "headstarting" program in cooperation with the US Fish & Wildlife Service. The Cooter Headstart Project is one of many turtle conservation efforts conducted by MassWildlife and other conservation agencies and organizations. 

Regosin shares, “As part of the ‘headstarting’ program, cooperating partners, including area volunteer high school students, raise the turtles in warm aquarium environments allowing them to grow faster. This, in turn, makes them less vulnerable when they are finally released and therefore more likely to make it to adulthood.”

In Massachusetts, the Red-bellied Cooter primarily inhabits freshwater ponds that have abundant aquatic vegetation. For nesting, the Red-bellied Cooter requires sandy soil on land surrounding the pond. Red-bellied Cooters reach maturity at approximately 15-20 years of age with a life expectancy of 40 to 55 years. 

Massachusetts has 10 native terrestrial and aquatic turtles (not including sea turtles) and six of those are listed under the Massachusetts Endangered Species Act (MESA). To learn more, visit MassWildlife and watch the Headstart Project on Ocean Mysteries with Jeff Corwin here.

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