Grandma the Chicken Turtle: A Collaboration for Conservation

Conservation is commonly thought of in big picture terms- saving the Amazon Rainforest, preserving enough land for roaming families of elephants or gorillas and conserving the great barrier reef for generations into the future. But conservation can also be a school classroom, a teacher planting flowers for monarch butterflies, cleaning up trash from a local river or stream, or helping a turtle on the road get safely to the other side. This is the story of one of these smaller, yet very rewarding, conservation efforts, which involved some pretty big players.

On June 8 of this year, Dr. Rebecca Snyder, Director of Conservation and Science at the Oklahoma City Zoo and Botanical Garden, was contacted by the Oklahoma Department of Wildlife Conservation (ODWC) regarding a chicken turtle that had been located with an eye and jaw injury. This particular turtle was part of a long-term population monitoring program, spearheaded by Dr. Day Ligon and the students in the department of biology at Missouri State University. This female turtle was one of the first of her species to have a radio-transmitter placed on her shell, and she was one of the oldest-known chicken turtles in Oklahoma. Her rescuers referred to her as “Grandma,” and they suspected that she was full of eggs!

After hearing from ODWC, Dr. Snyder reached out me, Dr. Brad Lock, curator of the reptile and amphibian department at the Oklahoma City Zoo, to inquire if we could step in to help Grandma. I immediately contacted the Zoo’s veterinary team to see if we could bring Grandma to the Joan Kirkpatrick Animal Hospital’s quarantine building at the Zoo, where her wounds could be treated. The veterinary team agreed, and Dr. Ligon’s research students transferred Grandma to an ODWC officer who then brought her to the Zoo on June 11.

You may be wondering why we would devote time and resources to treat a single chicken turtle, but Grandma’s population is in trouble. Chicken turtles only occur in a small area of southeastern Oklahoma and are uncommon everywhere they live. In Oklahoma, the population size of chicken turtles is declining. The main cause for this is loss of habitat, such as ponds, marshes and creeks that the species needs to survive. In Oklahoma, this turtle species is listed as a Tier II species of Greatest Conservation Concern. So, helping even one individual is important for the species’ population as a whole. In the past, chicken turtles were collected for their meat, which was found to look and taste similar to chicken – hence their name.  

Once Grandma arrived at the Zoo, she was placed in a quarantine room and set up in a large tub with clean water, a place to hide and a basking area with a heat lamp. She was given a few days to settle in before the veterinary team performed a thorough health check. Her eye and jaw were examined and X-rays were collected to determine if her jaw was broken and if her injured eye was still present, as it was swollen shut. During the health exam, the veterinary team not only found that Grandma’s wounds were treatable, but also confirmed that Grandma was gravid (term for turtle pregnancy), and did in fact have eggs inside her!

At that point, we collectively decided that due to the stress of her injury, along with the removal from her home pond, daily veterinary treatments and the pregnancy itself - it was best to physically remove Grandma’s eggs.

So how do you remove eggs from a turtle without causing it pain? The process is similar to that of an obstetrician helping a human mother give birth - by giving a drug that induces labor called oxytocin, most commonly referred to as Pitocin for humans. Grandma received oxytocin to encourage labor, and in a few days, nine eggs were retrieved and placed in a cold room. Why a cold room, you may ask? We all know that turtles need to be warm, as do their eggs, so they can properly develop and hatch. So, what were we doing? While it’s true that most reptile eggs need warmer temperatures, a few species of reptile eggs first require a cool period, referred to as diapause, before they can begin to develop. To mimic diapause for Grandma’s eggs, they were placed in a tub with soil at a temperature of 68 degrees Fahrenheit for one month.

Now that the eggs were removed and in diapause, Grandma was treated for her wounds. She responded to her treatments quickly and settled into eating her worms and greens. In fact, because Grandma was recovering so well, she was released into her home pond ahead of schedule on Independence Day, July 4!

What about Grandma’s eggs? Well, when her eggs were finished being cooled, they were placed inside an incubator at 86 degrees Fahrenheit. With the hope that some eggs would hatch, the long waiting period of 50 to 70 days began. Why 86 degrees, you ask? I’m glad you did! Many reptiles, mostly turtles, tortoises, alligators and crocodiles, exhibit what is known as temperature dependent sex determination, or TSD. In other words, temperature determines the gender of the turtles. With turtles, cooler incubation temperatures produce males and warmer temperatures produce females, so we chose a middle temperature for incubation to produce male and female hatchlings.

Herpetologists examined the incubator daily to check on the eggs. On day 54, caretakers spotted a hatchling outside of its egg! Approximately three days later, four more hatchlings emerged. With a total of five chicken turtle hatchlings, Grandma’s rescue effort and egg retrieval was deemed a huge success for the conservation of this native turtle species.

After the eggs hatched, it was time for ODWC, the Zoo and the researchers from Missouri State to put our heads together and determine what the next steps were. There were two choices to consider – releasing them at their home pond as soon as possible, as it was early September and still warm, or waiting through the winter. The discussion led to a decision to release the hatchlings at that time to ensure they’d be able to demonstrate the same natural behaviors as wild hatchlings of 2021. So once again, the researchers and ODWC met and transferred the five hatchlings back to Grandma’s home pond, where they were released on September 11. This was an incredibly rewarding experience, a great story, and best of all, an important outcome for the turtle species. Afterall, so many large things start with small steps!

- Dr. Brad Lock, curator of reptiles and amphibians

Posted by Sabrina Heise at 08:00
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