Blanding’s turtles hatchlings face a daunting trek from the nest to the ponds and wetlands that will shelter them. © The Nature Conservancy

What do you do if you only have eight known Blanding’s turtles in the population you’re studying at Illinois’s Nachusa Grasslands Preserve?

Well, if you’re Rich King and colleagues, you lure them into hoop traps baited with sardines, attach tiny transmitters to their shells with an epoxy resin, and then spend the months from April to October using radio telemetry to track them by hiking the prairie holding an antenna above your head, all of which is not as easy as it may sound.

Still, notes King, professor and chair of the Department of Biological Sciences of Northern Illinois University, “all of that effort can really pay off when it comes to learning more about the Blanding’s at Nachusa, and what we can do to help the population grow.”

The Same Eight Turtles Since 2013

Illinois is in the heart of the Blanding’s turtle’s historic range, but — like most species dependent on grassland habitats — populations of this small turtle with a bright yellow throat have dwindled with the prairie and its wetlands. At Nachusa, researchers have been studying the Blanding’s here since 2013 and became increasingly concerned when they kept finding the same eight individuals year over year.

“That’s a bad sign for the population,” says Bill Kleiman, Nachusa Grasslands project director. “When you find the same turtles repeatedly, it suggests the entire population is about eight individuals. And these eight were all older adult turtles. If you aren’t finding any young ones, it means that recruitment is low.”

When it comes to their lifecycle, Blanding’s turtles don’t have it easy. They spend most of their lives in wetlands, but females move away – sometimes far away – from the water to lay their eggs in sandy uplands with decent sun exposure. (They actually travel farther on average to nest than either painted or snapping turtles.)

And while the turtles in the wild are very long-lived, on average 50 to 70 years, they don’t reach sexual maturity until they’re about 15 years old. So finding young and maturing…