A rescue mission swept in and saved dehydrated, emaciated victims on the western edge of California’s Mojave Desert in November. The targets weren’t lost hikers but dozens of southwestern pond turtles.
“The turtles were starting to abandon ship,” says UCLA biologist Brad Shaffer. Their home, Lake Elizabeth, has shrunk considerably in the extended drought gripping the state, and water conditions have turned into an alkaline, salty brew. With about 300 individuals, this population of California’s only native freshwater turtle is the largest of its kind in the southern half of the state.
“There was a sprinkling of dead turtles around the cracked, dry shore,” says Shaffer. “They were just staggering around in and out of the water on an 80-degree day, not at all their usual skittish selves.”
Not only were the five-inch-long reptiles—which are classified as a “species of special concern” by the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service—acting strangely, they looked odd, too. It appeared as if someone had adorned them with tiny grayish helmets and body armor. With less water in the lake, the concentration of salt and minerals increased, forming a cement-like crust on the turtles’ heads and carapaces, a centimeter or so thick in places. The waters may have proved too toxic for their fish and tadpole prey to survive.
Lake Elizabeth, a sag pond on the San Andres fault within the Angles National Forest, is fed only by storm water. In 2013, the Powerhouse fire forced firefighters to draw water from it, and with the state’s ongoing drought, the lake’s depth dropped from 23 feet to just 3.
Turtle experts agreed that they had to step in. The species is already imperiled in its southern range (the northern dwellers are faring much better), largely due to development gobbling up its habitat. And the Lake Elizabeth turtles are unique—they’re the only ones known to contain genetic material from both the northern and southern populations. Biologists from the California Department of Fish and Wildlife, the U.S. Geological Survey, the U.S. Forest Service, the Turtle Conservancy, and UCLA teamed up to temporarily bring about 60 turtles out of the wild—enough to ensure they had an adequate amount of genetic diversity to start a new population, if need be.
Half of the reptiles are on the UCLA campus under Shaffer’s care, living in large pools on the roof of the university’s Botany building. They’ve put back on some weight, and their mineral coatings have all dissolved. The only marks of their hardships are the scars left on their shells (likely caused by the minerals).
The Turtle Conservancy is housing the rest at its center in Ojai. Paul Gibbons, the managing director, says his guests have finally started hibernating—a feat that took some experimentation. As temperatures dropped and the time for the long winter doze neared, Gibbons noticed that the turtles went from being fine to floating on the surface, looking like they were about to drown, all over the course of a few days. “We were scratching our heads,” he says.
The turtles initially lived in a naturally filtered pool that had walls to prevent them from escaping (which could potentially alter the genetic makeup of local turtle populations). While most literature shows that pond turtles hibernate in water, one study of a population in Los Padres National Forest, near Lake Elizabeth, found that the creatures prefer to do so on land. So Gibbons set up secure hibernation chambers on land, giving them a steady diet of fish that transformed them from sunken-eyed skeletons to plump reptiles. Problem solved.
Come spring, if rains have replenished Lake Elizabeth, the turtle saviors will release their charges back into their natural habitat. For now, their guests are nestled under leaves, snug in their shells, snoozing away the winter.
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