CHICAGO — The current magic number at Peggy Notebaert Nature Museum is 131.
That's the number of endangered baby Blanding's turtles that just went on public display. The hatchlings measure between one-half to 1 inch and weigh no more than an ounce each.
The will live at the Nature Museum for up to two years, then will be released into the wild.
The hatchlings are part of the Blanding's Turtles Restoration Project — a 20-year collaborative effort between several wildlife organizations.
The endangered turtles in Illinois are hunted by poachers, run over by cars and eaten by a multitude of predators.
The project began in 1996 when wildlife officials were able to radio collar two adult breeding females in DuPage County wetlands — one of the state's last hotbeds for the turtles. The turtles are native to Illinois and much of the Great Lakes region. There are currently 20 to 25 adult females collared in the wild.
"We are starting to see more turtles of every age group, which is the goal of the project," said Notebaert Director of Living Collections, Celeste Troon.
“We’re excited to welcome one of the largest groups of hatchlings we’ve had since the conservation program began in 2008," Troon added Monday. "This year, we’ve bred hatchlings from 11 females, ranging from 8-12 hatchlings per mother. This will also be the first set of turtles to inhabit the refurbished conservation lab, where we can now accommodate more turtles with more space. And in honor of our newest arrivals, we’ll be having additional programming in the coming days to educate visitors on the endangered Blanding’s turtle, which is indigenous to Illinois. We encourage everyone to visit the Nature Museum, see our hatchlings and learn more about them.”
The project is a team effort between Notebaert, DuPage Forest District and Willowbrook Wildlife Center. The turtles hatch at Willowbrook and are then brought to Notebaert when they're between four and seven days old, Troon said.
All turtles at the museum receive microchips. Females are radio collared the night before they're released into the wild.
If not for the group effort, it's likely the turtles would have disappeared from DuPage County. The eggs and hatchlings are easy prey for raccoons, coyotes, bullfrogs and other predators. Adult turtles are often hit by cars. Countless turtles are poached, many times in the middle of the night.
The turtles, which have been endangered in Illinois since 2009, likely number fewer than 5,000 in the state, Troon said. There are no viable populations within Chicago or Cook County, Troon said.
Blanding's turtles can live — and lay eggs — into their 70s, but they don't begin to reproduce until their mid to late teens.
Last year, Troon said, officials found the first wild hatchlings in the project site since 1998. Two years ago, she said, the first offspring were hatched from turtles that had originally been hatched at the museum.
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