October 18, 2021

Water for Turtles



Water for Turtles

Female turtle #201 rescued from the creek. They can only eat and reproduce in the water, so this extended three-year drought has made things pretty tough.

She lay motionless in the sand, eyes closed, body tucked into a shell encrusted with dried mud. Paul Astin gently picked up the big old female pond turtle #201, thinking her dead, and indeed, it took several minutes before she opened her eyes to see what was happening. We found her next to a puddle, the last remaining water in a string of sandstone pools that usually stay wet year round. Not this year. By April, the pools were drying down and three adult turtles were found dead. Seven adult turtles had taken refuge in this small wet spot that day. The Topanga Stream Team volunteers were conducting our annual turtle survey and it was not looking good. We first met #201 in May 2005 when she was captured in the main pond. She visited us again in 2006 and 2009, but we had not seen her since. This is a fairly common pattern, as the adult female turtles quickly learned to avoid our traps and were usually only captured by hand. It is hard to tell how old she was, but our native turtles can live as long as 30 years if they survive their first few years. Since she was fully grown when we first tagged her, we know she was at least 12 years old and probably much older. Gently holding her, Jenny Astin helped the team weigh and measure her. Once we had her in the shade, she started to perk up enough that we could see she had a bite wound on one leg and had lost a toe on another. She was 100 grams lighter than when we saw her in 2009. Like the other turtles, she was emaciated and instead of plump strong legs, her skin was hanging in folds and she barely had strength to protest. We placed her in a bucket with cool water and hoped for the best. Unfortunately, she died in my hands the next day despite our best efforts to counteract the extended fast and heat she had endured.


Water for Turtles

Dedicated members of the stream team pour water into Topanga Creek to help the remaining pond turtles survive the next few months until rains come again.

Although called pond turtles, our only native turtle species actually spends much of the year hunkered down under chaparral bushes, waiting for the rains to come. They can only eat and reproduce in the water, so this extended three-year drought has made things pretty tough.

Not wanting to return the other six turtles to a sure death, we moved them to another, more stable pool nearby. But in fact, even these refugia pools are losing water fast, so we filled up jugs and carried more than 60 gallons of water over half a mile to help counter the drought. We marked the water level on the side of the pool and when I returned a week later it had already dropped two inches.

These turtles have survived for thousands of years, and drought cycles are just one of many challenges in their world. What makes this drought particularly difficult and different from those in the past are a few recent changes.

First, there are just fewer turtles overall remaining. As recently as 1986, there were 30 creeks throughout the Santa Monica Mountains where native turtles were observed. As of 2009, we found them in only eight locations and only the Topanga population had more than 200 individuals.

There was another site with around 50 individuals, but just a few turtles were found isolated in other watersheds. Development now surrounds the islands of turtles, effectively preventing them from navigating the myriad roads and predators to succesfully migrate to find suitable habitat.

The habitat itself has also changed, with brush clearance removing the leaf litter under shrubs where the turtles aestivate while they wait. Predation levels have increased as more raccoons, ravens, coyotes and dogs inhabit the edges between development and wildlands. Perhaps more critically, the number of days with temperatures over 95oF has increased, and the storm patterns have shifted, leaving turtles vulnerable to extended periods of high heat without time to recover in between. As if that is not enough, poachers get very high prices selling these sought-after native turtles on the black market.



Water for Turtles

A woman and child pour water into one of the few remaining areas of Topanga Creek housing pond turtles, who are in dire need of rain.

I have lost a lot of sleep about this problem. Last year the County Fire Dept, Water District 29, Susan Nissman, and Supervisor Yaroslavsky, along with MRCA helped us put 20,000 gallons of water into the pond. It was so dry that the water disappeared as soon as the hose was turned off. The water table has dropped even further this year, with mature willows dying in the former pond. So this year, we are hand carrying gallons of water up to the few remaining refugia pools hoping to keep the water level as high as possible and provide at least a few familiar places for the turtles to visit, rehydrate and find some food.

Thanks to the Santa Monica Mountains Conservancy folks, we can now drive the water up the steep access hill, but we still need help carrying the water to the pools. Each gallon weighs eight pounds, which feels pretty heavy after hal a mile! This is hot, bushwacking hiking, but if you want to help, please contact me (rdagit@rcdsmm.org) to sign up to volunteer. We plan to deliver water every week or so until the rains come.


If you are not up for the physical task, consider “adopting” a Topanga Turtle. A contribution of $25 (or whatever your heart suggests) to the RCDSMM Turtle Project will also help provide food and other logistical support. This project has survived since 2002 thanks to donations from many turtle lovers who adopted turtles or made contributions over the years.

Working together, perhaps we can make sure that this last remaining remnant population continues to survive.

Editor’s Note: In 2010, the Topanga Messenger adopted Turtle #49, found as a female hatchling in 2002. At that time her carapace measured 72 mm and she weighed 56 grams. She was recaptured in 2007 and had grown to 141 mm and weighed 310 grams, mature enough to lay eggs. When we asked Rosi Dagit about #49, she replied: “Funny you should ask! We just saw her on August 1 in one of the refugia pools. She is doing okay considering! She was probably born in 2001 so yes, she should be 13 years old! We are hauling water up to the pool where she is later today (Aug. 19).”

To help out the Turtles, send a check to the RCDSMM Turtle Project, PO Box 638, Agoura Hills, CA 91376-0638. Let us know if you want to “adopt” a juvenile, male or female turtle. We will send you a photo and life history details of your adoptee.