Park officials found a nest of 11 baby Blanding's turtles Tuesday in Eagan, thrilling turtle lovers and providing proof that the rare species is reproducing in Dakota County.
Moreover, there's another Blanding's turtle nest elsewhere in Lebanon Hills Regional Park filled with eggs, officials said.
"We're especially interested in these turtles," said Tom Lewanski, Dakota County Parks' natural resource manager. "The [Blanding's] turtle is listed as threatened in Minnesota."
The discovery of the silver-dollar-sized hatchlings "informs how we manage the park," Lewanski said, adding that staffers want to make sure they provide the right habitat for the turtles and don't do anything to harm them.
Until this year, the park staff knew of only one Blanding's turtle in Lebanon Hills, said Scott Hagen, natural resource specialist for Dakota County Parks.
Both nests were found this summer. Officials located one nest, the one still filled with eggs, by tracking the mother with a radio transmitter. The transmitter program is part of a recent survey to find out which animals and how many call the county's parks home.
So far, five turtles — spread between Whitetail Woods Regional Park and Lebanon Hills — have transmitters attached to their shells. Eleven Blanding's turtles have been identified at Whitetail Woods, along with four at Lebanon Hills (not including the new babies).
Lewanski wouldn't say exactly where the babies were found, for fear that someone might try to capture and keep them. "We don't like to draw a lot of attention to these things that are so rare," he said.
Blanding's turtles, which are 7 to 10 inches long with bright yellow chins and dark, speckled top shells, are threatened in Minnesota due to habitat loss, according to the Department of Natural Resources (DNR).
The reptiles gravitate toward prairies that are near wetlands, Lewanski said — a habitat combination that is widespread in Lebanon Hills.
Turtle eggs and young are very vulnerable. The mother turtle abandons the eggs after laying them but her scent remains, making them an easy meal for animals like raccoons.
To protect the turtle eggs, park officials covered the nests with chicken wire and then put rocks and stakes around them, Hagen said.
Once hatched, the babies have to trek up to a mile to the nearest marsh, since the mother may deposit the eggs far from home. They sometimes have to cross busy roads to get to the swampy area, where they may wind up eaten by birds or fish.
Because the new babies hatched near a gas pipeline reconstruction project, Lebanon Hills officials moved them to a wetland. They have a DNR permit that allows them to handle the turtles, but people who spot young turtles are advised to leave them alone unless they're in danger, Lewanski said.
Erica Hoaglund, a DNR nongame wildlife specialist, said there are 10 relatively healthy Blanding's turtle populations in Minnesota. The new babies' existence is "exciting," she said, because scientists know so little about young Blanding's turtles.
"It's possible that we're missing important pieces of the Blanding's turtle … puzzle," she said.