Wood turtles, once common in Eastern Massachusetts, are struggling to survive as development encroaches on their habitats.
Now, MassWildlife and Zoo New England are partnering in a three-year conservation project aimed at locating the turtles, finding them potential new habitats, and protecting their hatchlings.
Wood turtles are registered on the state and federal endangered lists but not much is known about where they live.
“Steps involved in this wood turtle project include searching stream habitats to find wood turtles, tracking movement patterns . . . and identifying unoccupied areas where wood turtles might successfully establish populations in northeastern Massachusetts,” MassWildlife said in a statement. The initiative was announced last month.
The turtles, which can grow up to eight inches long, can live up to 100 years. They reside mostly in the Merrimack River Valley now, MassWildlife said.
Populations closest to Boston have significantly fallen due to residential development, limiting the open mud and river banks they use for feeding and hibernation.
“As adults, wood turtles have few predators but are vulnerable to road casualties, forestry and agricultural activities, stream bank development, and pesticide and heavy metal pollution in waterways,” the statement said.
Zoo New England is tagging each turtle. The group also plans to nurture hatchlings in a head start program, which raises hatchlings for one winter until they’re strong enough to survive on their own.
“Hatchling turtles are captured and raised over eight-nine months, resulting in yearlings that are the size of 3-year-olds at the time of release. This increase in size gives each turtle an advantage in surviving to adulthood,” the group said.
Wood turtles were once the most common freshwater turtle in Eastern Massachusetts, populating the Charles and Nashua rivers. But now researchers believe there are no more than a few thousand in the state, and there could be less than 15 in some counties.
“Now, extremely small populations are scattered and isolated and a lot appear to be below a viable population size,” said Mike Jones, the state herpetologist. “This is the core problem for wood turtles, it’s one that going forward is going to be difficult to mitigate.”