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Turtles Party in the Pond!

Turtles Party in the Pond! 

With some help from human advocates, and against all odds, the Topanga population of western pond turtles are hanging on, but this species is in trouble. Threats like habitat loss, climate change, and predatory invasive species are heavily impacting the West Coast’s only native freshwater turtles. Earlier this year, the US Fish and Wildlife Service recommended that these ancient and charismatic animals be listed as threatened under the Endangered Species Act. Photo: USFWS

Editor’s note: The western pond turtle is the only remaining native freshwater turtle in California. This once-abundant species is increasingly at risk from habitat loss, climate change and water quality issues. The western pond turtle is a California species of special concern and is listed as vulnerable on the International Union for Conservation of Nature Red List. In September, the US Fish and Wildlife Service recommended that the species receive threatened status under the Endangered Species Act. Here in Topanga the local population of pond turtles have some passionate and dedicated protectors. Rosi Dagit, senior biologist for the Resource Conservation District of the Santa Monica Mountains, has spearheaded the effort to monitor and care for the turtles, helping to ensure their survival. She shares her annual update on these charismatic but imperiled animals with TNT’s readers.

The annual Western Pond Turtle (WPT) Round Up took place the week of 25 July 2023, with afternoon temperatures reaching over 105oF! Thanks to almost 50 inches of rain this winter, Zuniga Pond was still full of water and teeming with juvenile tree frogs, western toads and lots of other tasty treats. A slow but steady flow continued to seep through all the drainages, keeping the refugia pools connected and full to the brim. The willows and tules that died during the drought are resprouting and there are lots of large woody logs for basking. Perfect conditions for happy turtles!

Due to deep water, in addition to RCDSMM Stream Team members Jayni Shuman, Alyssa Morgan and Danielle Picciano reaching their hands into every reachable crevice, our intrepid WSP member Nate Kamm donned a wetsuit and tried to catch turtles by hand in the refugia pools. Despite a determined effort, only a single new adult female was hand captured. 

Danielle Picciano and Rosi Dagit collecting data on pond turtle Male 297. Photo RCDSMM Stream Team

Thanks to funding from Santa Monica Mountains Conservancy and donations from turtle lovers like Wendi Gladstone, we had funds to also deploy our traps in the main pond as well as the refugia pools. Once traps were set and baited with canned sardines, we checked them afternoon and morning so that any turtles captured are released quickly. Thanks to help from Wendi and Louise Leborgne from the CA Science Center, we were able to check in with female #708 who had grown since we first tagged her in June 2021. We also got a visit again from male #297 who was first tagged in 2013 and who not only grew a bigger shell, but put on some weight!

While we were disappointed not to find any new baby turtles, it is pretty clear that sardines hold no appeal when compared to a buffet of baby frogs and toads. Hopefully all our turtle friends enjoyed the feast and since we can see them moving around the pond, maybe there is a lot of turtle love happening so that we get more babies next year?

Our effort to set traps to check in on the Santa Maria Rd. turtles was briefly postponed until August due to a 25 acre brushfire. Two adults were observed but not captured. We also got word that one adventurous turtle was observed crossing the road, but again not captured. This smaller population is quite remarkable in its resilience but no babies have been observed in several years.

The water delivery system is still functional and waiting to be called to action when water levels start to drop. We will be continuing our monthly visual checks to keep an eye on things. We are most grateful that Manzanita School and Cali-Camp donated over 3,200 gallons of water to support the turtles in 2022 before the rains arrived. 

Keeping tabs on our turtle friends is more important than ever as their regional population continues to shrink. Trapping in 2022 revisited the eight sites where WPT were observed in 2009 and documented presence/absence at these locations post Woolsey Fire (2018), which burned through over 97,000 acres of the Santa Monica Mountain National Recreation Area. Sadly, we only found turtles in three of those sites. USFWS is currently evaluating a potential threatened listing for WPT in southern California which are now listed as sensitive. Data from our turtle round ups are being used to help guide the review and previous DNA analysis from the Santa Monica turtles is helping support this effort. Our turtle friends need us now more than ever and your RCD is dedicated to helping them however we can.

If you are interested in becoming a volunteer, please check out our website and sign up to get notices when we are doing fun stuff!

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