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News Endangered turtles get a head start on life

Northern Red-bellied Cooters are spending the winter in fostering institutions to get a head start on life.
  • Division of Fisheries and Wildlife
  • MassWildlife's Natural Heritage & Endangered Species Program
Size difference between headstarted and normal northern red-bellied cooters.

Last month, 164 Northern Red-bellied Cooter hatchlings were paired with fostering institutions where they will live for the next eight months. These fostering institutions—including schools, museums, and non-profit organizations—are part of MassWildlife’s Red-bellied Cooter Headstart Program. The Headstart Program began in 1984 as a way for MassWildlife’s Natural Heritage and Endangered Species Program (NHESP) to help the survival of the species and increase awareness of endangered species in Massachusetts. This year is tied with 2001 for raising the most baby turtles since the headstarting program’s inception 33 years ago.

Over the next eight months, the walnut-sized fostered hatchlings are provided plenty of warmth and food, which encourages substantial growth throughout the winter when they would normally be inactive. In the spring, MassWildlife will release these turtles back into the wild. Headstarted turtles will potentially be the size of a grapefruit, greatly increasing their chance of survival in the wild. Larger turtles are less likely to be eaten by predators, giving these turtles a headstart at life.

Northern Red-bellied Cooters are a large freshwater turtle listed as endangered both through the Federal Endangered Species Act and the Massachusetts Endangered Species Act. Since NHESP began the Headstart Program in 1984, over 4,000 headstarted cooters have been released back into the wild. Many of these released headstarted turtles have grown up and are now laying their own clutches of eggs. This year, 26 partnering institutions from across Massachusetts are fostering turtles.

Support efforts like this and NHESP by donating! Make checks payable to “Comm. of MA—NHESP” and mail to MassWildlife, 1 Rabbit Hill Road, Westborough, MA 01581.

MassWildlife's Natural Heritage & Endangered Species Program 

The Natural Heritage & Endangered Species Program is responsible for the conservation and protection of hundreds of species that are not hunted, fished, trapped, or commercially harvested in the state, as well as the protection of the natural communities that make up their habitats.