skip to Main Content

June Feature: With a deep sense of place, Tennessee Aquarium advocates for turtles and their habitats

A wood turtle in a New York valley stream. “Turtles are nature’s living sculptures,” says Dave Collins, Tennessee Aquarium Director of Forestry and Animal Behavior.

SPECIES360 MEMBER FEATURE: TENNESSEE AQUARIUM

Place is a key theme for Tennessee Aquarium and AZA’s SAFE American Turtles program. Turtles live for generations in the same place. Confiscated turtles need to be returned to the right place.  Aquarium guests need to understand trafficking is going on, right here, in this place.

Dave Collins, turtle expert and Director of Forests and Animal Behavior at the Tennessee Aquarium, himself has an acute sense of place. In addition to overseeing the Tennessee Aquarium’s collection of freshwater turtles, he’s privately studied and documented a population of Wood Turtles in an upstate New York valley stream for decades.

Dave Collins returns periodically to the New York valley stream where he first launched a field research study in 1978. Here, he holds wood turtle #48, an individual that he first marked in this same location more than 45 years ago.

In 1973, working for an environmental consulting firm, Collins began field research that he would sustain for his entire adult life. Twenty-three years later, he took his then-8-year old son with him on a site visit to mark turtles. The pair managed to find some of Collins’ original marked turtles, including #48 — an individual that the pair would encounter again more than 20 years later.

This inextricable link to place makes turtles especially susceptible to threats imposed by climate change, water quality, and poaching. There are 356 turtle species, and each one – down to the individual – is uniquely linked to its habitat. As particularly sedentary animals, turtles live in the same area in which many previous generations have existed.

The Tennessee Aquarium Turtle Nursery: Kevin Calhoon, Curator of Forests, Bill Hughes, Senior Herpetologist, and Mackenzie Strickland, Animal Care Specialist (left to right) prepare the Turtle Nursery for its grand opening. As guests return to the Aquarium following recent closures, they are able to see the nursery for the first time.

Turtle experts like Collins view turtles as the “canary in the coal mine” for aquatic environments. Despite predating the dinosaurs, and successfully living on every continent except Antarctica, turtles now face a range of anthropogenic threats.  Habitat loss and degradation, and unsustainable trafficking have made them the planet’s most-imperiled group of vertebrates, with 60 percent of the world’s turtle species in danger.

While their long and steady process of change and adaptation has served them well for centuries, it’s no longer doing so. Because they can’t adapt quickly enough, and are relegated to very small areas of the planet, turtles are being pushed to the limit.

Tennessee Aquarium Herpetologist Mackenzie Strickland cares for turtles in the nursery and other enclosures. The Aquarium is home to the largest collection of freshwater turtles in North America.

Much is being done to save these species, and Tennessee Aquarium is at the center of these efforts. The institution is home to more than 78 species and 89 subspecies of turtles, operates a critical hatchling and nursery facility, and is a go-to location for the care of turtles confiscated from illegal trade. In addition to Collins, Aquarium herpetologist Bill Hughes manages five studbooks used by a wide swath of institutions to help ensure that populations bred in captivity remain genetically diverse and healthy.

Most recently, Tennessee Aquarium joined other institutions in forming the AZA SAFE American Turtles program, a new national partnership specifically focused on protecting native turtles. The initiative connects animal care specialists like Collins, Hughes, and those at zoos and aquariums throughout North America with state wildlife agencies, academics, non-governmental organizations and law enforcement to tackle turtle trade on a level no one organization could manage on its own.


In all, Tennessee Aquarium has contributed data on 1,474 species, including 161 species and subspecies of turtles, to the Zoological Information Management System (ZIMS). That data helps peer institutions around the world to improve animal care and make better decisions regarding species conservation.


“Most people are unaware of the rampant problem of turtle trafficking, which has driven some species to the brink of extinction,” said Dan Ashe, President and CEO of AZA, in a press release announcing the initiative. “Turtle trafficking is a critical issue that compounds other threats they face, such as habitat loss and pollution. Educating people about these threats, and how to be smart consumers, will benefit turtles and the habitats on which they rely.”

As the Species Coordinator for spotted turtles in over sixty institutions, and as the lead on the new AZA SAFE American Turtles program, Collins knows the crucial role good records and data play. “As we coordinate work with the zoos and aquariums and the field projects, it is increasingly important that we know the lineage of the populations we maintain,” said Collins.

He describes recent confiscations totaling more than 250 spotted turtles by the US Fish & Wildlife Service and state wildlife agencies. To integrate these confiscees into existing turtle populations from the East Coast to the Midwest is complex: researchers are comparing blood samples to a “genetic map” of US turtles developed from field surveys.

“We need to get their genetics sorted out, so we can ensure we’re adding them back to the right populations,” said Collins. This is complicated by the fact that some are offspring of parents from separate genetic regions.

Turtles confiscated at ports – primarily JFK airport in New York, the main mail exit point for North American turtles being trafficked to Asia – are often found packed in a mailing box with no return address.  If their origin can’t be determined, and they can’t be released, they need to be placed into viable conservation programs. The goal of the SAFE program is to build capacity to do this, but as Collins explains, this raises numerous questions: Are the turtles a health risk? Were they exposed to exotic species? What was the quality of husbandry? How long were they out of their normal environment? Does any of this affect their reproduction?


Institutions participating in AZA SAFE American Turtles curate one of the largest sets of data on species of turtles.  Together, they have recorded data on 14,613 turtles of 339 species, and much of that data – weights, medical norms, etc. – is available to inform research and species conservation measures led by CITES, IUCN Species Survival Programs, TRAFFIC, and others.


Tennessee Aquarium Registrar Christina Newman (pictured working remotely during the 2020 COVID-19 pandemic) equipped aquatics and forestry staff to enter animal records directly into ZIMS using Husbandry Log Templates. The transition streamlined animal records keeping and paved the road for better insight from analytics reports.

Contributing missing data needed to save species

These are the types of questions that aquarium staff help to answer as they care for individuals and groups on site. Every day, Tennessee Aquarium staff record critical data on husbandry, breeding, and medical treatments for the individuals and groups in their care – and share that information with other like-minded institutions worldwide as part of Species360, a global non-profit comprised of more than 1,200 zoological institutions worldwide.

“When turtles arrive, we take the weights of the animals and look for any sign of a fungal, bacterial or respiratory infection. If there is any, we start treating that immediately. All of the steps, from first taking in the animal, are ultimately recorded in ZIMS where it is shared across our medical team, herpetologist, keepers,” said Mackenzie Strickland, Herpetologist, Tennessee Aquarium.

In all, the Aquarium has contributed data on 1,474 species, including 161 species and subspecies of turtles, to the Zoological Information Management System (ZIMS) used by Species360 member institutions. Information on individual animals and groups throughout the Aquarium is recorded and managed by Registrar Christina Newman, ensuring the data meets the high standards of quality required to inform research, breeding, care, conservation, and habitat restoration initiatives worldwide.

Most recently, Newman orchestrated a transition which enables more animal care staff to enter data directly into ZIMS from locations throughout the Aquarium. Previously, staff often used spreadsheets, prepared forms, or paper records. Every day, those reports were copied, scanned, or uploaded and ultimately entered into the Aquarium’s animal records system by Newman or other staff.

Tennessee Aquarium Herpetologist Mackenzie Strickland serves as AZA Studbook Keeper for the yellow blotched map turtle, and uses ZIMS for Studbooks to gain better insight to individuals and groups in the care of other AZA-accredited institutions.

“Our full aquatics team began entering data directly in ZIMS on February 1, and I feel like we reached that goal just in the nick of time,” said Newman in early April, as Aquarium staff navigated the challenges of managing animal care during stay-at-home mandates that stemmed from the COVID-19 outbreak.

During the recent COVID-19 crisis, forest and aquatics staff working on site are divided into teams “A” and “B”, working separate schedules to reduce exposure and risk. By alternating a “4 days on, 3 days off” schedule, the teams avoid contact with each other.

“Seeing (records from) the four days or three days that you have been off, which is longer than you typically would be away under normal circumstances, gives you a snapshot of what has happened with that animal or enclosure. It bridges the gap,” said Newman.

Staff often call, text, or email each other to discuss things that they want to call attention to, and can point to ZIMS for details and a consistent record to build upon. Critical information comes directly from the staff member working with the animal or enclosure, creating a first-hand account that is immediately available to others.

Any surprises? “Yes – more detailed information!”

In all, 11 forest staff and 15 aquarists are now entering data directly into ZIMS using Husbandry Log Templates created by Newman. “I get few corrections to make and very few questions from staff,” she said, crediting the speed of using the templates versus staff having enter data into individual animal records.

“When we started having people enter information directly into ZIMS, my concern was it would not be as informative or that I would have a lot of errors to fix. But what I didn’t expect was that they were going to be more detailed,” she said.

Newman attributes the quality of input to a shared, more complete, view of the animal’s information.

“I think that, because they can now see the whole picture of that animal, they see why more detail benefits the overall understanding of that animal, its care and welfare,” she said.

Collins has been around long enough to remember pre-ZIMS paper record-keeping and data sharing at the Aquarium. He feels that ZIMS has huge benefits because it allows staff to be far more specific and make more comments than with the old paper logs. He also appreciates the depth of background on individual animals that ZIMS can provide.

“We are very interested in turtle reproduction, when their nesting periods are. We’d have notes like, ‘These 2 had to be together 2 years before they did anything’ (Turtles don’t do anything overnight). Back in the old days, I put ‘the female with the yellow blotch on the left side’ with the male.  Now you can far more clearly identify individuals, so you can be sure you have the right turtle,” said Collins.

Tennessee Aquarium is home to the largest collection of turtles in North America. The Aquarium will reopen June 18 after closures due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

Strickland, who worked with the Turtle Assurance Colony at Dalton State College as a biology student before graduating and joining the Aquarium, says the ability to share information across like-minded institutions and herpetologists caring for similar species is key.

“The fact that we can see relevant information on different animals, not only within our own Aquarium but also those in the care of other organizations, and transition from written notes to more detailed and electronic copies – that is critical to our work,” she said.

The shared view of individuals and groups also supports Strickland’s work as AZA studbook keeper for the yellow blotched map turtle.

Being able to look at information for individuals at other institutions helps me to work more effectively as a studbook keeper for the species. I can look at what other curators or keepers working with individuals of the species have put in notes regarding offspring this year,” she said.

Tennessee Aquarium staff members like Herpetologist Bill Hughes serve as coordinators for six Species Survival Plans (SSP) — cooperative programs designed to manage populations of animals in human care — including the critically endangered Arakan Forest Turtle and Keeled Box Turtle. Learn more about this and other conservation work at the Aquarium blog.

AZA SAFE American Turtles participants curate vast amount of data on turtles

More than a dozen institutions participating in the AZA SAFE American Turtles program already curate one of the largest sets of data on species of turtles using ZIMS.  Together, they have recorded data on 14,613 turtles of 339 species, and much of that data – weights, medical norms, etc. – is available to help inform research and initiatives not only at AZA and associations like it in other regions of the world, it also is used to inform research and species conservation measures led by CITES, IUCN Species Survival Programs, TRAFFIC, and others.

The ideal is to identify individual turtles at the point of confiscation, says Collins, and obtain for inclusion in ZIMS, data from the confiscated turtles’ “chain of custody”: law enforcement agencies (once a confiscation case is resolved), and the network of institutions – not necessarily AZA or ZIMS members – caring for these animals.

Trafficking is much closer to home than you thought

Collins believes the SAFE program will have a lasting impact, and will be an eye-opener for the general public, many who think that wildlife trafficking only happens “somewhere over there”, and don’t understand how close to home it is. “The main message I want to get across to our guests? That turtle in your backyard, or that you helped across the road is now at risk of being trafficked.”

Early last spring, Dave Collins’ son Evan joined him for a repeat visit to the same New York Valley stream. Wading around in the icy water, his son held up a turtle. Even from the shore, Collins recognized it as one he’d marked 45 years earlier in 1974 and they had seen during their previous visit. “What are the notches?” [the identifying notch codes], he yelled from the shore.  “Bet it’s number 48.” Sure enough, it was.


Just as he had before, Collins took a photo. When he got home, he dug out the 1994 shot for comparison.

“It was almost the exact same spot, my son holding up a turtle almost the exact same way. Only difference was, he had a little more sophisticated smile on his face,” said Collins. He muses that centuries ago, a young Iroquois boy in that same valley may have similarly held up the ancestor of his son’s turtle. He imagines the same level of interaction between humans and animal, and is struck by the deep significance of place – how long places take to develop, and how easily they can be destroyed.  

“Whatever little bit of woods, or your back yard, or elsewhere, is important,” he concludes. “It’s an animal’s home.”

Read more about the Year of the Turtle at Tennessee Aquarium.

Read more about the AZA SAFE American Turtles program.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Back To Top