Any discovery of an endangered species outside of a protected habitat is cause for celebration for those who make their living working with them.
So you can imagine Jerry Novak’s excitement when a friend showed him a box containing a western pond turtle, which numbered only about 150 in Washington 20 years ago.
“I opened the box and said wow,” said Novak, field program coordinator for Woodland Park Zoo’s Western Pond Turtle Recovery Project, a partnership with the Oregon Zoo, the state Department of Fish and Wildlife and the national Department of Fish and Wildlife Service. “It was a really nice surprise.”
Even more surprising is that the healthy turtle was discovered right here in Edmonds, in Shell Creek by Main Street. It was taken to Just Frogs & Friends Amphibian Center in Edmonds, which contacted the zoo. The frog was named "Frank" after Frank Slavens, who founded the Western Pond Turtle Recovery Project 20 years ago.
“It’s a pretty amazing discovery in Edmonds, given how rare the western pond turtle is in Washington state,” said Rebecca Whitham, a spokesperson for Woodland Park Zoo. She said Frank was given a check-up last week, which included X-Rays, blood work and inserting it with a tracking device.
Given a clean bill of health, on Friday Frank was one of almost 50 western pond turtles released in protected habitats in Mason County and in Lakewood in Pierce County. Each year, Woodland Park Zoo takes care of newly hatched western pond turtles until the hatchlings grow large enough to avoid predators.
It is hoped that Frank will be successful in a breeding environment. One of the reasons the zoo is excited is that Frank could represent new genes that are not yet represented in the gene pool of the breeding population.
“I believe this is only the seventh western pond turtle found in Puget Sound since the project began in 1991,” said Novak, who lives in Kenmore. “Every new one found is vitally important to the conservation of this species.”
Today, thanks to the success of the recovery project, researchers estimate there are about 1,500 western pond turtles surviving in Washington.
Novak, however, said there could be an unintended side effect of the turtle’s discovery in Edmonds. “A problem we have had in the past after media reports is that we get swamped with calls from people thinking every turtle they see in a pond is a western pond turtle.”
Novak said more about 99 percent of all turtles observed in Puget Sound are released and unwanted pets and not western pond turtles.
“One of the major diagnostics for correctly identifying these turtles are fine vermiculations (wormlike lines of color) of black and grey on the top of the head, with a cream-colored neck and throat on the male or a finely vermiculated orange-like throat on the female,” Novak said.
He added that they also tend to have cream to pale yellow vermiculated front legs. They are also smaller compared to most turtles, with an average length of seven inches.
But Novak added that the discovery of the turtle, who he estimates as under 10 years old, means that there could be more like it out there. “But it’s also possible someone found it and took it home as a pet,” he said. “There’s just no telling.”