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Fresno Chaffee Zoo Works To Preserve Valley Turtle Population

Aug 9, 2016

Northern California’s only native turtle is in danger.

In an effort to keep the northern western pond turtle from dying off the Fresno Chaffee Zoo is involved in a repopulation program with the Association of Zoos and Aquariums’ Save Animals From Extinction Program. The turtles aren't on display, but hidden behind the zoos exhibits where they're being studied.  

To learn more about these reptiles FM89 Reporter Ezra David Romero visited the zoo and chatted with reptile keeper Dustin Piontek. To listen to the interview click play above. 

Western Pond Turtles
Credit Ezra David Romero / Valley Public Radio

Tell me about the northern western pond turtle.
"We have about 20-30 on site right now and they are a species of special concern. They are a smaller turtle and California's only native pond turtle. So that's an animal that we are monitoring out in the wild in California. In Oregon and Washington they are an endangered species, but in California they are a species of special concern."

If I were out in the wild where would I find the turtles?
"Any kind of wetland, rivers, streams, ponds, bogs. Any kind of body of water that has logs laying above the surface where they can bask is really good habitat for them."

What are the problems these turtles are facing?
"For a long time they were actually eaten. Apparently Americans had a taste for turtles as food. At least a hundred years ago or more a lot of them would be removed from the wild. That has changed and most of it now [has to do with] habit. Draining of wetlands for agriculture and the introduction of invasive species where they compete with them for resources. They're eating them and eating their food. They're kind of being attacked by a lot of different sources."

"A lot of people think that they need our help if they see them on the road. They do travel long distances and often times roads will be intersecting these areas. Often times people will get out of their cars and want to move them and touch them, but the best thing you can do is to just leave them alone."

Why are turtles important to the ecosystem here in California?
"They play an important role. Their eggs will be eaten by a lot of mammals. They actually eat a lot of pests and will eat mosquito larva, leeches and small worms and tadpoles and things like that. They help control other populations and they're also an important food source."

I understand there is still a lot of mystery surrounding these turtles. Tell me more. 
"All the information leads to that their numbers are decreasing in California. So there needs to be more studies done about them and what is happening to their numbers. They are kind of elusive and their is research being done about what they do during the winter when it is too cold. They have the ability to bury themselves in mud and actually go through a whole season almost falling asleep."