These Turtles Have Formed Helmets Thanks to Extreme Drought—Too Bad It Won't Protect Them From It

Salt minus water plus a lot of sunlight equals turtles encased in a life-threatening hard coating.

(Photo: UCLA)

Dec 15, 2014· 1 MIN READ
TakePart fellow Jessica Dollin studied journalism at the University of Arizona. She has written for the Phoenix New Times and HerCampus.

Emaciated, dehydrated, and stressed-out. Those words aren’t usually associated with turtles, but biologists from UCLA had to rescue ones fitting that exact description from a drought-ridden lake in Southern California.

Thanks in part to the state's epic drought, the lake's salinity levels have risen sharply, leaving the turtles in a salty predicament. The combination of concentrated salt and extra sunlight has formed a hard encasing on the shells and heads of the turtles.

But it doesn't look like these helmets will protect turtles from climate change—if anything, the endangered species’ headgear is a sign of what’s to come. The scientists noticed the turtles were in a weakened state when they spotted them around the lake. Instead of trying to flee, the turtles seemed stuck in place. The scientists are not sure what effect the helmets are having on the turtles' health.

A number of the turtles, known as Emys pallida, were moved from Lake Elizabeth to a freshwater pool on the roof of UCLA's Botany Building. As water levels in the turtles' former home have dropped, alkaline levels have increased.

The biologists taking care of the turtles are working with the Turtle Conservancy to replenish the population in a controlled environment—they will be returned to Lake Elizabeth once winter rain refills the water supply.

The California drought will persist, despite recent heavy rainfall.

"This has been three consecutive years of extreme dryness, and that extreme dryness translates to much lower groundwater levels, and very dry soils. It’s going to take a lot of rain to break this drought," Jeffrey Mount, a senior fellow with Public Policy Institute of California, told KQED.

The California Department of Water Resources estimates that 1.5 times the amount of current rainfall a year is needed to end the drought.