"What's going on is we're head-starting 18 ornate box turtles, which is an endangered species in Illinois. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service asked us to partner with them head-starting this species. They brought us some eggs this spring which we incubated here," Anthony Nielsen, lead keeper, Lion House, said.
By head-starting, Nielsen means that for the next year they will speed up the growth of these little turtles. They'll take these babies and turn them into adults in just one year, instead of five. So far, in just one month of life, the plan is working.
"They're doing great. Since they were born at about one/fifth of an ounce and right now they're about half an ounce," Nielsen said. "They growing very fast."
It may seem impossible, but it's true. In the next 12 months these creatures will grow from about the quarter size to five inches across. They do it by bypassing hibernation and eating lots of food.
"They'll eat and grow. They're not exposed to all the pressures of being in the wild. And this year they will not hibernate. We'll keep them awake for the entire season so they can continue to grow through the entire winter and spring," Dave Bernier said.
About a year from now, the turtles will be returned to the wild at Thompson Sand Prairie in northwest Illinois, where the eggs were collected, and also at Lost Mound Sand Prairie in Savanagh, Illinois.
Eventually, more 100 turtles will be reintroduced.
"The goal is, yes, to establish a population where they were extricated from where they're no longer found, but used to live," Bernier said.
The turtles don't know it yet, but they're in the lead of a race to restore their population.