A western pond turtle with a miniature transmitter is released into the Sycuan Peak Ecological Reserve. Photo by Ken Bohn/San Diego Zoo

The San Diego Zoo is working with state and federal scientists to reintroduce a rare turtle species into a local ecological preserve and monitor their progress via tiny radio transmitters.

Five juvenile western pond turtles were released into the Sycuan Peak Ecological Reserve on Thursday by a team of federal, state and zoo scientists. The turtles are part of a “headstart” program which involves raising hatchlings at the zoo to a large enough size to give them a chance of fending off natural predators.

The turtles are sporting miniature radio transmitters applied with a flexible silicone sealant, which allows the young turtles’ shells to grow and expand, even with the transmitter device attached to it.

“We’re able to monitor these turtles with their radio transmitters and check on them periodically to see how they’re doing,” said Tommy Owens, senior keeper with the zoo’s herpetology department. “It’s really important here at the beginning of the release, because the turtles might not stay put and we want to be able to find them easily. Through radio tracking we can see the use of habitat, their behaviors and check on their overall well being.”

The western pond turtles are California’s only native freshwater turtle species, a species that was once widespread in California, Oregon and Washington. They are now uncommon, especially in southern California, due to habitat loss and invasive, nonnative predators like bullfrogs and largemouth bass, which eat up hatchling turtles that are no larger than a quarter.

Since the first generation of “headstart” turtles was released over a year ago, researchers monitoring the program have noticed progress and have been able to catch those turtles periodically to gather their measurements. After examining the turtles and checking their transmitters, researchers release them back into the same watershed.

The Sycuan Peak effort is a joint project of the U.S. Geological Survey, San Diego Zoo Global, the California Department of Fish and Wildlife and the San Diego Association of Governments. The project is testing conservation strategies to help western pond turtles and other native species, since many California ecosystems are being impacted by invasive, nonnative species accidentally or intentionally introduced by humans.

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Chris Jennewein

Chris Jennewein is Editor & Publisher of Times of San Diego.