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Notes from the Field

Spiny Softshell Turtle (Apalone spinifera)

RTPI conservation staff Jonathan Townsend and Twan Leenders recently joined wildlife rehabilitation specialists Shelby Priester and Karen Slote to help with the release of three rare spiny softshell turtles. The three youngsters were collected last summer or fall by a private individual, who likely found them somewhere right after they hatched and were leaving their nest to head to a nearby river. Spiny softshell turtles are a species of special conservation concern in New York State and protected by the law. Taking home found baby turtles is never a good idea. It very rarely ends well for the turtle, but it is also illegal. Wildlife officers from the NY Department of Environmental Conservation eventually confiscated the turtles and transferred them into the good care of licensed wildlife rehabilitators. After spending the winter in a captive setting and putting on some impressive size and weight, the youngsters were now ready for release back into the wild. Unfortunately, the exact location where these turtles were collected was not known and RTPI was contacted to help identify a suitable release site.

RTPI conservation staff has been monitoring spiny softshell turtle populations in the greater Jamestown area for several years. During the summer, high school and college student interns collaborate with RTPI staff to trap and mark turtles in the Chadakoin River and its tributaries to better understand the biology and population status of these animals. Our largely urban environment, in spite of it being very much altered by human activity, is still home to five different species of turtles! As a result of these surveys, our staff is quite familiar with the areas that are critical to the softshell turtles and we chose a known breeding site as the release site. Newly-hatched baby softshell turtles enter the watershed each fall here anyway, so it seemed like a suitable location to add three more babies to the population.  Sure enough, as we pulled up to the river five adult female turtles could be seen basking on the rocks that jut out above the water level. They were soaking up every possible ray of sunshine to support growth of the developing eggs inside their bodies and very soon they will begin excavating nests and laying eggs.

Spiny Softshell Turtle (Apalone spinifera)

Knowing that the site is still actively used by these rare turtles and clearly provides all the food, shelter and other amenities they need was enough reason to release the three babies there. After being placed gently into the river, all three immediately swam off into the channel and either buried themselves into the muddy bottom, or dove into a deep hole out of our sight. Even though they had spent the past several months being very well cared for, living in posh accommodations with room service providing them with every meal, they had clearly not lost their wild instincts and abilities. Let’s hope that they adjust quickly and will one day be able to add some of their own babies to the local population to boost the chance of survival of our local at-risk turtles.

Watch a video of the release on RTPI’s YouTube Channel.