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Southwestern pond turtle shows signs of San Diego-area comeback

Habitat destruction and invasive species almost made the pond turtle a goner in San Diego County. Now a conservation effort seems to be working.

August 21, 2011|By Tony Perry, Los Angeles Times
  • Senior keeper Thomas Owens checks one of the southwestern pond turtles being raised at the San Diego Zoo.
Senior keeper Thomas Owens checks one of the southwestern pond turtles… (Ken Bohn, San Diego Zoo )

Reporting from San Diego — Modern life has been tough on the southwestern pond turtles that once were populous in the coastal part of San Diego County.

Development ravaged the turtle's natural habitat. Then came the rise of invasive species that challenged the pond turtles for food or, in some cases, liked to dine on them.

The African clawed frog, red-eared slider and crayfish have been particularly damaging to the turtles, which live in pools within natural streams and sloughs.

In 2003 the U.S. Geological Survey's Western Ecological Research Center could find only 120 pond turtles in five locations in the San Diego region. Without help, the turtle was looking like a goner in the area.

For one thing, two-thirds of the females were huddled together in one location — not an ideal way to keep the population growing.

In 2009 the USGS, the San Diego Zoo, the California Department of Fish and Game and the San Diego Assn. of Governments started a "save the turtles" program for the county.

Eggs would be hatched at the zoo and the young turtles released in the wild when they could avoid predation. Invasive species were relocated.

The pond turtle still has a long way to go before it's out of danger.

But last week Thomas Owens, a senior keeper in the zoo's herpetology department, reported encouraging progress in a report to the annual Symposium on the Conservation and Biology of Tortoises and Freshwater Turtles in Orlando, Fla.

"Just last week, researchers saw new young pond turtles at the study site," Owens said.

Twelve pond turtles are on display at the zoo's Elephant Odyssey exhibit and 10 at its Reptile House.

tony.perry@latimes.com

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