News  5,000th Headstarted turtle released into the wild

Masswildlife’s turtle headstart efforts have been boosting endangered northern red-bellied cooter populations for the last 40 years.
  • Division of Fisheries and Wildlife

Media Contact   for 5,000th Headstarted turtle released into the wild

Media Contact, MassWildlife

northern red-bellied cooter release

This year marks the 40th anniversary of Masswildlife’s Northern Red-bellied Cooter Headstart Program—one of the longest and most intensive freshwater turtle headstart conservation programs in existence.

The northern red-bellied cooter is listed as endangered under the federal and state endangered species acts. Like most Massachusetts turtles, northern red-bellied cooter hatchlings have many predators and few make it to adulthood and reproductive age.

Through the Headstart Program, turtle hatchlings are removed from the wild in early fall and paired with educational and scientific facilities from across the state. For 8–9 months, the turtles live in a warm aquarium environment with unlimited food. This greatly accelerates the growth of the turtles which increases the likelihood of survival. This size advantage gives each turtle a "head start" at life before release back into the wild.

When the Headstart Program began in 1984, the estimated population of northern red-bellied cooters in Massachusetts was only 300 turtles. Due to the success of the Headstart Program, the population is now over 2,000 adults.

This year's headstarted turtles were returned to MassWildlife in mid-May. Each turtle was fitted with a Passive Integrated Tag (PIT) which is used for identification and tracking.  The young turtles were then released back into the wild at suitable sites in the southeastern part of the state. This included the release of the 5,000th headstarted red-bellied cooter!


Northern red-bellied cooter facts

Common name: Northern red-bellied cooter
Scientific name: Pseudemys rubriventris
Size: Males: 10–12 inches long; females: 11–13.5 inches long; weigh up to 12.7 pounds
Range: Massachusetts population: Plymouth and eastern Bristol counties; primary range: New Jersey coastal plain south to North Carolina's Outer Banks, inland to West Virginia's Potomac watershed
Conservation status: State listed and federally listed as endangered 
Fun fact: Life expectancy is believed to be more than 50 years


northern red-bellied cooters
These two turtles are the same age, but the larger turtle was part of the headstart program and the smaller turtle was not
adult northern red-bellied cooters
Adult northern red-bellied cooters basking in the sun.


There are 10 species of native freshwater turtles live in Massachusetts. Six of these turtles are listed under the Massachusetts Endangered Species Act (MESA). Learn more about our native turtles and what you can do to help them thrive.

Media Contact   for 5,000th Headstarted turtle released into the wild

  • Division of Fisheries and Wildlife 

    MassWildlife is responsible for the conservation of freshwater fish and wildlife in the Commonwealth, including endangered plants and animals. MassWildlife restores, protects, and manages land for wildlife to thrive and for people to enjoy.
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