Endangered Turtle Hatches At Oregon Coast Aquarium

December 19, 2005

A highly endangered species of turtle added a new member to its dwindling population this month. A baby Vietnamese leaf turtle hatched at the Oregon Coast Aquarium and is doing well — showing signs of growth and strength. "Turtle Trek: A Journey of Survival" has been a popular exhibit since it opened in May of this year at the Aquarium. Key topics of this exhibit reveal how turtle and tortoise habitats are disappearing at an alarming rate world wide and show what we can do to help. “I did my best to replicate this turtle’s native habitat, Halong Bay, Vietnam,” according to aquarist, Evonne Mochon-Collura, who cares for the Vietnamese leaf turtles. “This particular pair, the male and female are from a private collection, and we were told she was very old, so we assumed there was no chance for her to lay eggs—this was a complete surprise!”

Mochon-Collura noticed the female turtle had stopped eating and had propped herself up against the edge of her tank for four days straight. She began to watch her carefully because unusual behaviors could indicate changes in health. “I was concerned because we had ruled out the possibility that she might lay eggs,” said Mochon-Collura. That was until the morning of August 14 when Mochon-Collura came in to work and found three eggs sitting in the turtle’s tank. She removed them to protect them and began incubation. As it turned out, only one of the three eggs was fertilized; the other two contained only yolk and fluid.

Mochon-Collura found an internet group that exchanges information about this specific species, so she was able to get a wealth of information about incubating the eggs and caring for the baby turtle after it hatched. She began candling it (shining an LED light to it) every ten days after 60 days of incubation to monitor its growth. “I was so excited to see the turtle’s silhouette move – it was just amazing!” Mochon-Collura, who is an aquarist at the Aquarium and also teaches biology at OCCC, said the embryo was just a dense spot at first, but as time went on she watched formation of its body and eyes. Incubation took a total of 108 days. “I went in to check on it on the 108th day and saw a head peeking out of the egg!” She said it stayed there for most of the day but then it finally walked out that night, with the yolk-sac still attached. The yolk continues to nourish the baby for a few weeks after hatching.

The baby had its first meal at 13 days old. “We put a tiny cricket in its water dish and it saw the movement and went for it.” Mochon-Collura says she is now interested in captive breeding because it alleviates pressure on wild populations. The owner of the Vietnamese Leaf Turtle has another pair that has reproduced in captivity, but the female on loan to the aquarium hadn’t produced eggs until now. “It’s unusual for this species to lay more than two eggs at a time and these were larger than normal as well, so we think she must be very content in her habitat we created for her here. It was incredible how the baby turtle just knew what to do after barely a day,” said Mochon-Collura, who cites this as one of the best experiences of her life. “It has been very active, alert and strong. When it wrapped its claw around my finger I couldn’t believe how strong it was!” The baby turtle, which is barely bigger than a quarter, will be on display this week in the turtle exhibit near its parents and will remain here until the turtle exhibit ends in April, 2006.