We have some adorable new arrivals behind the scenes at the New England Aquarium — baby Northern red-bellied cooters. While they are not visible to the public, we’re excited to share pictures and updates about these local freshwater turtles here on the blog. Our head veterinarian Dr. Charlie Innis explains why these youngsters are temporarily here at the Aquarium.

Northern red-bellied cooters are a species of freshwater turtle that lives in the Eastern United States, including New Jersey, Pennsylvania, Delaware, Maryland, and Virginia. Interestingly, there is also a population of this species that lives in Plymouth County, MA, several hundred miles away from any other known populations.

red-bellied cooter
The young turtles arrived last week.

It used to be thought that Plymouth red-bellied turtles were a separate species, but DNA testing has shown that they are the same species as those that live in other states. However, the Plymouth population is unique enough to be considered as a genetically distinct population. In the 1980’s the numbers of red-bellied turtles in Massachusetts was very low, only about 200 – 300 animals, so they were placed on the United States and Massachusetts Endangered Species List.

In order to increase the number of red-bellied turtles in Massachusetts, scientists started a project called a “head-start” program. In the wild, many turtle eggs are eaten by animals such as raccoons and skunks. To prevent this, scientists began putting wire cages over red-bellied turtle nests so that the eggs would not be eaten. When the baby turtles hatch in the fall, some of them are brought to institutions like the New England Aquarium, and they are raised over the winter.

red bellied cooters
They will live behind the scenes and get plenty of tasty lettuce to eat.
red-bellied cooter underwater
Next spring, the turtles will be large enough to release back into the wild.

This way, the turtles grow large enough so that they will not be eaten by fish, crows, frogs, etc. Over the past twenty years, the head-start program has increased the population of red-bellied turtles in Massachusetts up to 2,000 – 3,000 animals! In fact, some head-started turtles have now become old enough to lay eggs of their own.

We thank the many individuals and organizations that have helped red-bellied turtles over the years, especially Terry Graham, Tom French, and Dave Taylor, and the late Allison Haskell. We will keep you updated on the progress of these babies, which will be released to the wild later this spring.

– Dr. Innis

red-bellied cooter
Stay tuned on the blog for lots more pictures of these turtles as they grow up.
These turtles are not visible to the general public. But if turtles are your jam, we have you covered! Visit Myrtle the green sea turtle and the loggerhead sea turtles in the Giant Ocean Tank. Look for the diamondback terrapins in the temperate gallery and the red-headed river turtles in the Amazon Rainforest exhibits. Don’t forget about the live animal presentations, where we often introduce turtles, like Eastern box turtles.