Endangered Blanding’s Turtle Getting Help from Local, State Organizations and Nonprofits
Named for pioneer physician Dr. William Blanding (1773-1857), who discovered this species during explorations of the Fox River in Illinois in the 1830s, Blanding’s turtles have an upturned mouth and seemingly smiling expression. Known to the scientific community as Emydoidea blandingii, until recently there hasn’t been much to smile about regarding this now state-endangered reptile.
The geographic range of the Blanding’s turtle is restricted to the Great Lakes region of North America, as well as in Iowa, Missouri, Nebraska and a small part of New England. Not only is the Blanding’s turtle endangered in Illinois, it has the same status in Missouri, Maine, New Hampshire, Massachusetts, South Dakota and Nova Scotia, and are listed as threatened in Ontario and Quebec. This species requires both wetlands and sandy grasslands to survive, and both those habitats have drastically declined in Illinois. Road mortality and associated habitat fragmentation also has played a big part in this species decline. Today the Blanding’s turtle occurs in just 22 percent of its historic Illinois range, mostly in the northern quarter of the state, according to the Illinois Department of Natural Resources (IDNR).
State and local organizations and nonprofit organizations, including the IDNR and Illinois Audubon Society, are working to help this species thrive by purchasing, protecting and restoring wetland and sand prairie habitats. In addition, northern Illinois Forest Preserve Districts have obtained the appropriate state scientific permits allowing them to raise young turtles in captivity and release the animals when they are large enough to avoid most predators.
One location in the state with appropriate habitat conditions for this species is the Green River Lowland Section of the Grand Prairie Natural Division. Encompassing a region within Henry, Whiteside, Lee, Bureau and DeKalb counties in northwest Illinois, the rural landscape also offers an environment with less human disturbance than turtle populations existing in the Chicago region face.
“Various organizations are working together in the Green River Lowland to benefit Blanding’s turtles,” said IDNR District Heritage Biologist Russell Blogg. “We are trying to maintain the natural communities the Blanding’s turtles need. These turtles hang out in the wetlands but nest in sand prairies. One action we can take to benefit this species is to ensure that prairies don’t get taken over by woody encroachment.”
IDNR staff have fitted some turtles with transmitters, allowing biologists to gain a greater understanding of the turtle’s habitat requirements by tracing their travel patterns.
“We’re looking at the location and distribution of these turtles, and in particular what part of the landscape are they using and where they are spending their time,” Blogg said. “We’ll use that data to target restoration activities targeting the best habitats for these turtles.”
The Illinois Audubon Society is also helping protect and improve habitat for Blanding’s turtle on properties it owns in the Green River Lowland Section, including Amboy Marsh Nature Preserve.
According to John C. Nelson, a Natural Areas Preservation Specialist for the Illinois Nature Preserves Commission, “The Illinois Audubon Society has recently acquired several tracts within the Green River Lowland Section and that’s good for the Blanding’s turtle.”
The adult Blanding’s turtle has a 10-inch long dark, lightly speckled, domed shell complemented by a bright yellow chin and throat. Its notched upper jaw and up-curved mouth make it appear to be smiling.
Research has shown that Blanding’s turtles can live to be 70 years old, and they don’t start breeding until they are from 10 to 14 years old. They prefer specific types of wetlands, especially those forming larger marshes and sedge meadows, as well as sunny sites where they can bask. Overall, Blanding’s turtles use upland sites more than other aquatic turtle species, according to “Conservation Guidance for Blanding’s Turtle.” Turtles are known to travel up to 1.2 miles from a wetland to find a suitable nesting site.
Female turtles that live in heavily populated areas, such as the northern Chicago suburbs, run the risk of getting run over by a car when they travel long distances to lay eggs. The young also have a greater chance of getting depredated. That’s why several Chicago region land management organizations have developed a head start program for the turtles.
Under the parameters of the Illinois Administrative Code persons are not allowed to take, possess, transport, purchase, or dispose of specimens or products of an endangered or threatened animal unless a valid Endangered Species Permit and Scientific Collectors Permit for such activity have been issued by the Illinois Department of Natural Resources.
Biologists with Lake County Forest Preserve District, McHenry County Conservation District and Forest Preserve District of DuPage County possess permits allowing for staff to search for gravid turtles in spring, then transport those turtles to research centers. After laying eggs, adult females are returned to the same location where they were found. Eggs are placed in incubators, and hatchlings will be transported to water-filled tubs for rearing. The hatchlings will be routinely measured and weighed and moved outdoors in a temporary mini-habitat before being released to the wild.
The Lake County Forest Preserve District has been involved in the head start program for the turtles for roughly 15 years. According to Forest Preserve Wildlife Biologist Gary Glowacki, 20 percent of the hatchlings released between 2013 and 2016 have been relocated, meaning survival of captive-raised young is relatively high. Although on-site protection of nests using wire mesh can provide some level of protection, eggs collected and hatched in the lab can increase hatching rates from 23 percent to as high as 67 percent. In Lake County, control of predators through trapping has reduced nest predation.
Recently, health assessments of Blanding’s turtles have yielded positive cases of Emydomyces testavorans, a fungus that produces shell lesions and leads to premature death. The fungus has been mostly confined to animals housed in captivity, but three wild animals have tested positive. Therefore, the Blanding’s turtle head-start program has been paused while biologists work to understand the disease and the implications for rearing animals in captivity.
Hopefully this is only a temporary set-back as the head-start program provided a promise for the future of the Blanding’s turtle in Illinois.
Sheryl DeVore writes environment and nature pieces for regional and national publications and has had several books published, including “Birds of Illinois” co-authored with her husband, Steven D. Bailey.