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Below The Surface

Wednesday, June 6, 2012

New Digs for the Wood Turtle


Building a new habitat for our wood turtle was a long-term goal for me as part of the Animal Care Department at ECHO. I love the turtles here at ECHO, but I’m also very excited about the exhibit design opportunities in my job.

ECHO's wood turtle enjoying some time in the "sun"
The wood turtle is a species that has been labeled by US Fisheries and Wildlife as "being of special concern". Our wood turtle has been here for a long time, happily residing in an aquatic tank on the exhibit floor with a huge log in the center for her to bask on. The turtle was perfectly healthy, but always in the back of my mind was the incorrect representation of a natural wood turtle environment.

While wood turtles winter in streams, during the warmer months they spend much of their time in terrestrial environments. In fact, wood turtles can often be found as far as 1,000 ft. from water in wooded areas (hence the name wood turtle). I wanted to create an exhibit piece to go inside that aquatic display that would act as a land area for the turtle. Purchasing a professionally-made exhibit piece is financially prohibitive, plus it takes all the fun and creativity out of it. After much research about the plants often found in the wood turtle’s native habitat and what these areas look like, I decided to build an eroding riverbank to fill about 70 percent of the habitat.

A broader view of the new land platform in the wood turtle exhibit. 
My crew of volunteers and I spent nine months building this fiberglass and resin exhibit insert. First we cut plywood and chicken wire to create a mold on which to build the exhibit. Then layers of fiberglass fabric and resin were applied. The final layers of resin held dirt and pebbles to create a natural feel. Two silver maple trunks and a stump suggest a wooded environment. Ferns provide the cover for the turtle to feel hidden and secure. Roots and rocks emerge from the muddy bank and spill into the water, creating a slope that the turtle has no problem crawling in and out of the water on.

When we were finally able to install the exhibit we were quite pleased with the aesthetic effect, though the turtle was not. The wood turtle spent a week and a half hesitantly exploring the new terrestrial aspect of her habitat, but mainly remained in the aquatic section of the tank that was familiar to her. Now, almost three weeks later the turtle can often be found basking on her pebbly beach or nosing around in the ferns and stumps. Congratulations wood turtle, you have returned to the riparian woods!

Tessa Faye-Foulds, ECHO Environmental Exhibit Specialist

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