"They are very charismatic," said Zannie Dallara, a Sonoma State University graduate student as she held a newly hatched western pond turtle.
"Look at them . . . how could you not like them?"
The turtles -- each the size of a quarter -- are being hatched in an SSU biology lab in makeshift incubators and will be raised by the San Francisco and Oakland zoos before being released in Lake County.
It's part of a biology science project involving Dallara and three other SSU graduate students and Nick Geist, an associate professor of biology.
The object is to save turtles from extinction and at the same time learn about their biology, Geist said.
"Western pond turtles are a snapshot of what is happening to turtles in general," said Geist. "Turtles are in decline on a global scale."
The turtles prefer the slow-moving waters of ponds, creeks and lakes, and in Sonoma County can be found along the Russian River, in the Laguna de Santa Rosa, in Mark West Creek and even at SSU's campus ponds.
They can grow to be a foot in diameter, live for 60 years and as a species go back 230 million years, having survived even as dinosaurs and other life forms perished.
"They are living fossils," Geist said.
There were once prolific populations of the western pond turtle from Washington state to Baja California, but now none can be found near San Diego, Los Angeles or Santa Barbara, and only small pockets exist in the Central Valley.
They have become victims of human expansion as marshes have been replaced by houses and vineyards, and creeks have been lined with concrete. Predators such as fox, skunk, bullfrogs and fish still raid their nests or eat the young, Geist said.
"We aren't going to wait until they are on the brink of extinction; we are trying to step in before they reach that crisis point in California," Geist said.
SSU's western pond turtle project began a year ago when students put radio transmitters on the turtles living in the SSU pond and followed them to their nests.
The present project, which started in June, is being funded by a $6,000 grant from the Sonoma County Fish and Wildlife Commission and $2,000 from SSU.
Students spent four weeks near Cobb in Lake County this summer painstakingly tracking turtles to their nests and collecting 57 eggs from eight nests.
Those eggs are being hatched in five incubators kept at different temperatures, since the temperature of the egg determines the sex of the turtle.
"Above the temperature, you get females; below the temperature, you get males," Geist said. "It's a pivotal temperature. But nobody knows what that temperature is."
In the past five days, 20 turtles have hatched, each of which Dallara bathes, weighs, measures and marks with different colors of nail polish to identify the nest, the incubator and the order of hatching.
The newly hatched turtles are then taken to the San Francisco and Oakland zoos, where a scientist from the San Diego Zoo will make a determination of each one's gender.
The zoos will raise the turtles for a year before taking them back to Cobb, where they will be released.
"The ultimate goal is to make sure the species doesn't go extinct," Geist said.