What's With The Turtles?

It’s spring, and with the changing of the season comes the fantastic sight of turtles zooming around campus. It can be very amusing to see turtles out as far as the Atheneum or swimming in the Caltech Hall Pond. But why do they do this, and should they be stopped? Is the turtle menace going to take over campus?

There are over 99 turtles that call the turtle pond their home. The population is mainly composed of red-eared sliders although there are 1 or 2 softshell turtles as well. There are also some yellow-bellied turtles who look very similar to the red-eared sliders but are missing the characteristic red markings on their head. The softshell turtles are known by several names, Waffles, Pancake, and Lorenzo and are a much more elusive sight on campus.

The red-eared sliders are actually an invasive species; indeed, they are the most invasive turtle and are one of the 100 most invasive species according the International Union for Conservation of Nature. However, their habitat in the artificial turtle pond is not posing a danger to any other species so they are allowed to continue living there.

It is not quite known how so many of them got into the pond. The location where the turtle pond is used to house the very first building on the Caltech campus. Originally named Pasadena Hall, then renamed to Throop Hall when Throop college was renamed to Caltech, the building was said to be earthquake proof. However, a 1971 earthquake left large cracks in the façade and without the original plans, engineers decided to demolish it. While demolishing it they found steel rebar indicating the building could have stood for many more years.

Caltech had planned for the space to be filled by a simple staircase; however, students recommended a garden and pond area. The pond was not intended to house turtles, but soon the turtles found their way to the pond and have made it their home.

Today, the turtles are looked after by Caltech facilities. They are given turtle food and should not be fed by anyone else. They also should not be touched as they could be a disease vector.

The turtles go into a form of reptilian hibernation in winter called brumation. They become less active and need to eat and breathe less. Then, in spring they start mating and laying eggs. They wander around campus, either just to explore or to lay eggs. Every year new turtles hatch and join the bale.

If you see a turtle wandering around campus, its best to just leave it. Do not touch the turtles, unless the silly creature is attempting to cross a street and seems to be in danger. If you must move the turtle, pick it up from both sides and move it in the direction it is going. If you see a turtle stuck in Caltech Pond, it’s probably best to leave it there. They will not drown, and facilities comes by and removes them from the pond regularly. The grounds department can also be contacted at 626-395-4738 or over email if you have a concern. While an easy solution to the problem of turtles getting stuck would seem to be a ramp, facilities has said they will not install one as they claim it is just one turtle perpetually going back to the pond and they remove it frequently.

If you are interested in turtles or the turtle pond, Caltech has a turtle club who were very helpful in the writing of this article. This is their second year of operation, and they will have many events in May, the month of international turtle day to celebrate the creatures. Most of their activities are fun but they are also looking into conservation efforts for California’s turtles, who are very endangered. The Caltech turtle club can be contacted at caltech.turtle.club@gmail.com if you want to join or just want more information.

Photos by Thomas Cleveland. Follow @caltechtoidals on Instagram for more!