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In a sunny space directly under one of the Tennessee Aquarium’s tallest glass peaks, senior herpetologist Bill Hughes is caring for a special group of Southeast Asian turtles. The aquarium's ten adult Beal’s-eyed Turtlesare members of a vanishing species.

This past summer, five more Beal’s-eyed Turtles hatched, a significant conservation milestone for this species.

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Photo credits: Tennessee Aquarium

The aquarium's first Beal's-eye Turtle, hatched in 2007, made big headlines because it was also the first of its species known to hatch in a North American zoo or aquarium. Other hatchlings followed at the aquarium in 2008 and 2013. In the past two years, they have had eight more hatchlings - three in 2014 and the five tiny turtles that appeared this summer.

This species has been listed as Endangered by the International Union for Conservation of Nature and Natural Resources (IUCN) since 2000. 

“Their numbers have continued to rapidly decline over the past 15 years,” said Hughes. “The current recommendation is to update their status to Critically Endangered.” 

Such a move would officially mean that these animals face an extremely high risk of extinction in the wild in the near future. So adding even a few individuals to the global population is a big step toward ensuring this species does not vanish forever.

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Hughes recalls a time when this species was more abundant, but over time he recognized a need and an opportunity. “When I started working with Beal’s-eyed Turtles, I liked their rather small size and appearance,” said Hughes. “This was also a species that very few people had success rearing, so I saw this as a challenge to better understand and help this species.”

There are only 20 Beal’s-eyed Turtles in U.S. facilities accredited by the Association of Zoos and Aquariums (AZA)  – all at the Tennessee Aquarium. But Hughes is working with other herpetologists to change that and help bolster the populations in human care even further.

“We will start by transferring three turtles to the Knoxville Zoo to help ensure this group flourishes,” said Hughes. “We will also seek other AZA-accredited institutions that will be interested in working with this species.”

Researchers estimate that more than half of the 335 turtle species in the world are facing extinction, making this class of animals the most imperiled globally. So right now there is an increased focus on collaborative efforts to save turtles.

“The AZA Chelonian Taxon Advisory Group [TAG] currently manages 43 programs, but there is more we need to do,” said Michael Ogle, curator of herpetology and ornithology at the Knoxville Zoo and chair of the AZA Chelonian TAG. “Through these efforts we are working to create viable long-term assurance colonies or, in some instances, for release back into the wild. For many species, like the Beal’s-eyed Turtle, AZA breeding programs are the only path to survival until we can find a way to secure their future in their native ranges.”

Hughes also serves the AZA as Species Survival Plan coordinator for Spiny Turtles, Four-eyed Turtles (closely related to the Beal’s-eyed Turtle), and Arakan Forest Turtles.

While most of this important work is carried out behind the scenes, public awareness of the global turtle crisis is being raised throughout the aquarium. Guests have the opportunity to observe the behaviors of more than 75 turtle species from around the world in nearly all of the exhibits in the River Journey building. 

“Since the Aquarium first opened we have tried to provide our guests with turtle experiences to show how turtles interact with each other, how they interact with fish, birds and their environment,” said Dave Collins, the Tennessee Aquarium’s curator of forests. “By doing so, we hope to create a deeper appreciation for these animals and their role in nature.”

Guests have additional opportunities to meet a turtle expert during turtle programs offered daily in the Delta Country exhibit.