Speedy is looking very happy these days, since he has moved into a home that’s 100 times the size of his old one.

Speedy is an orange and yellow male box turtle who lives at the Darien Nature Center, which has just gotten a new pond ecosystem exhibit.

The project was made possible by a $50,000 grant from the Darien Foundation.

Wednesday, Oct. 16, was the official ribbon cutting and opening of the exhibit. Children from the nature center’s preschool program got their first chance to see it.

New exhibit

The new 50-square-foot exhibit holds 250 gallons of water — the prior one held 25 gallons. It contains natural elements from the outdoors including a pond, fresh moss, and a stream for natural aeration, as well as a “forest floor” with rocks, leaves, logs, and sticks.

There is also a window that’s low to the ground so children can come right up to the glass and watch the turtles swim.

“The grant allowed us to upgrade the turtle habitat to include not just our painted turtle that we knew needed a new enclosure, but we added our two resident box turtles and then we’ve acquired a new spotted turtle so all four are together,” said Program Director Emily Ciffone, adding that there are also two fish in the exhibit.

“Kids want to see Speedy swimming around, trying to catch fish under water,” Ciffone added.

Reason for replacement

The old exhibit was original to the nature center building, which opened in 2002.

“It was our most popular exhibit. When people walked into the animal room, it was that first place that they went and it was our water feature,” Ciffone said. “It has been in disrepair. Rocks were falling off it. It just didn’t meet the needs of the turtle anymore.”

According to Molly Robertson, director of animal care, in the prior exhibit, children had to stand on stools and look down into the water.

“It was very murky and dark in there, and you couldn’t really see Speedy unless he came up,” she said.

The Darien Foundation

Sarah Woodberry, executive director of the Darien Foundation, said all the grants the foundation gives out are locally based.

“Our focus is safety and security and quality of life, so we do grants with the schools, the Darien Community Association, and local organizations,” Woodberry said. “We react to the needs of the community.”

The Darien Nature Center is such a “heartbeat in the town” for small children, Woodberry said. “The foundation was happy to be able to help make it better for the animals and make it a really great experience for the kids.”

Research, enrichment opportunities

In planning for the design of the habitat, Darien Nature Center staff visited other aquariums and nature centers “to get an idea of what’s out there and what’s possible,” Robertson said. “We came up with a great, beautiful representation of a Connecticut pond ecosystem.”

“What we wanted and what we really succeeded in doing with this exhibit is give our visitors an example of what these animals would look like in their natural habitats,” she added.

The trend in nature centers, according to Robertson, is to provide a more natural habitat so visitors can get a taste for what the ecosystem the animals live in looks like.

Enrichment is “a very big focus” in animal care right now for zoos and nature centers — anywhere where people keep animals, Robertson said.

“It’s to keep the animal’s mind engaged and provide a stimulating environment so they’re not just sitting there, bored,” she said. “The turtles here have a lot more places to move. There’s a wet area so they can swim. There’s a dry area so they can go under the moss and hibernate. They have to catch their food.”

“These ecosystems are very delicate. The animals really depend on each other in order to survive,” she said.

Roberston added it’s important to learn what can be done to help preserve biodiversity, such as planting native species and not using pesticides.

“We’re all excited here at the Darien Nature Center to see this beautiful habitat come to fruition that our school and our after-school programs and all visitors can enjoy,” Robertson said.

“As a director of animal care, it’s very heartwarming for me to see our animals in such an enriching environment,” she added.

The Darien Nature Center, 120 Brookside Road, is free and open to the public. For more information, visit dariennaturecenter.org or call 203-655-7459.

sfox@darientimes.com