Tennessee Aquarium

Mid-Summer Baby Boom Brings Tiny Turtles, Pint-Sized Puffers, Petite Penguin Chick To Tennessee Aquarium

Chattanooga, Tenn. (July 27, 2021) – As any parent knows, kids tend to do whatever you least expect. In the case of an endangered Four-eyed Turtle hatchling at the Tennessee Aquarium, however, merely existing was — in itself — a huge surprise.

A baby Long-spine Porcupinefish swims in a backup facility at the Tennessee Aquarium

On July 11, a volunteer was tending an enclosure in a backup area of the River Journey building. This habitat was only supposed to house an endangered female Four-eyed Turtle (Sacalia quadriocellata), but the volunteer soon discovered that the adult turtle wasn’t alone. Perched atop a layer of vegetation was a tiny hatchling that, by all accounts, shouldn’t even have been there.

The Tennessee Aquarium's four-day-old Gentoo Penguin chick weighs just 253 grams (2)

“The adult female hadn’t been with a male in over a year, so we did not check to see if she had laid this year,” says Bill Hughes, the Aquarium’s herpetology coordinator. “To say the least, finding an egg, let alone a hatchling, was unexpected.”

Tennessee Aquarium Herpetology Coordinator holds a pair of recently hatched Four-eyed Turtles

Hughes says females of some turtle species have been documented to store sperm until conditions favor fertilization. This adaptation may be behind the unexpected hatching, but at the moment, the tiny turtle’s origins remain a mystery.

The baby Four-eyed joins another that hatched on June 10 from an egg husbandry staff were aware of and had been monitoring. The first hatchling emerged from an egg laid on April 15. Both are eating and doing well.

Since 2007, the Aquarium has successfully hatched 47 Four-eyed Turtles, which are so named for the distinctive eye-like markings on the back of their heads. Found only in mountainous streams and ponds in Southeast Asian, this species has been listed as endangered by the International Union for Conservation of Nature since 2000, thanks to over-collection in the wild and habitat loss.

“These turtles fall under a Species Survival Plan that I manage,” says Hughes, who also oversees a program managing the closely related, critically endangered Beal’s Four-eyed Turtle (Sacalia bealei). “Increasing their population is a long-term goal, so every hatchling is a step further in the right direction.”

Visitors to the Aquarium can see adorable examples of Four-eyed and Beal’s Four-eyed Turtles in the hatchling nursery of River Journey’s Turtles of the World gallery.

But tiny turtles aren’t the only recent arrivals at the Aquarium.

On June 24, the Aquarium celebrated the arrival of a Gentoo Penguin chick in the Penguins’ Rock gallery. It began the herculean task of leaving its egg two days earlier on June 22, when animal care specialists first saw its beak and heard its squeaking vocalizations. This fuzzy newcomer is the offspring of  Flower (mom) and Blue (dad), a newly minted pair of veteran parents.

During a routine veterinary checkup the day after it hatched, the chick weighed 132 grams — about 4.5 ounces. After a month of attentive care by its parents and close observation by Aquarium staff, the formerly tiny, peeping ball of fluff now weighs 2.4 kilograms (5.3 pounds), an increase of more than 1,800 percent. If a human child were to grow at the same rate, a newborn weighing seven pounds at birth would tip the scales at 127 pounds four weeks later. 

Size isn’t the only thing that’s bigger about the chick, though, says Loribeth Lee, the Aquarium’s senior aviculturist.

“For the first two weeks, it was pretty mellow, just looking around and studying everything,” Lee says. “Once two weeks hit, though, it developed a strong personality and loves to yell and slap at anything that moves too close!”

At the moment, the chick is still being fed by its parents, but Aquarists plan to begin hand-feeding it solid food in the next two weeks. Visitors to the Aquarium can observe the chick in its nest, which is encircled by clear acrylic panels, for the next six to seven weeks, when it will be old enough to join the rest of the colony. Its gender will remain unknown, pending the results of a routine blood test in November.

To keep tabs on the Aquarium’s Gentoo and Macaroni Penguins, digital visitors can watch a live video feed of the Penguins’ Rock gallery at tnaqua.org/live/penguins-rock/.

Elsewhere in the Ocean Journey building, a trio of juvenile Long-spine Porcupinefish (Diodon holocanthus) are being raised in a culturing facility near the Aquarium’s Secret Reef exhibit.

Despite only being as large as a thumbnail, these two-month-old pufferfish are dead ringers for their round-bodied, spine-covered parents. Under the care of aquarists and a steady diet of brine shrimp, they’re gradually increasing in size like balloons inflating in slow motion.

Once large enough — likely this fall —they’ll be placed on display in the Aquarium’s new larval fish exhibit in the Ocean Journey building.

The fish are the offspring of five adults housed in an off-campus care facility. Eggs collected from this facility were taken to the Aquarium, which has been conducting pioneering work into raising marine fish in-house since early 2017. Eventually, the adults will be brought to Ocean Journey to join the bustling aquatic community of the Secret Reef exhibit.

Whatever their age, there’s no denying the charisma Long-spine Porcupinefish exude, says Senior Aquarist Kyle McPheeters.

“These are definitely one of the cutest fish we work with, especially as babies,” he says. “But even the adults have a really outgoing personality and a very expressive face.”


Little Geckos Will Become 'Giants'

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Two baby Madagascar Giant Day Geckos (Phelsuma grandis) hatched last month from eggs laid by adults currently living in the rainforest habitat at the Tennessee Aquarium.

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DSC_9341Photo Credit: Tennessee Aquarium

In spite of their name, the babies are only a few inches long right now. The Aquarium's experts are caring for these tiny reptiles behind the scenes in a special Gecko nursery.

The Aquarium’s herpetology team says the pair are currently growing well and “eating like champs.”

The Madagascar Giant Day Gecko has a bright green body with brilliant red markings. The red markings fade as the Gecko ages, so the adults are mostly green in color. In the wild, these Geckos feed on insects, small reptiles, nectar and pollen. Adults can grow to around 12 inches in length.

Geckos are a type of Lizard. Madagascar Giant Day Geckos are native to the tropical forests of northern Madagascar, and a few other locations to which they have been introduced by humans.

Madagascar Giant Day Geckos are rumored to be the inspiration for the Geico Gecko of advertising fame.


Tennessee Aquarium Releases Hundreds of Native Trout

1_Tennessee Aquarium Reintroduction Biologist Meredith Harris holds a juvenile Southern Appalachian Brook Trout

Since 2013, the Tennessee Aquarium has partnered with several organizations to propagate wild Southern Appalachian Brook Trout in an effort to help this beautiful fish reclaim some of its lost territories. On June 5, participants in this program celebrated the release of 280 juvenile trout into the chilly waters of Little Stony Creek in the Cherokee National Forest near Elizabethton, Tennessee.

“They don’t want to be in the really swift water,” says Meredith Harris, a reintroduction biologist at the Tennessee Aquarium Conservation Institute. “We want to give them the best chance of staying put, spreading out in the creek and finding good food and the resources they need to thrive.”

2_Reintroduction Biologist Meredith Harris hand-releases a juvenile Southern Appalachian Brook Trout into Stony Creek

3_Tennessee Aquarium Reintroduction Biologist Meredith Harris  left  and Reintroduction Assistant Shannon P. Murphy release juvenile Southern Appalachian Brook Trout into Stony Creek

4_Tennessee Aquarium Reintroduction Assistant Shannon P. Murphy prepares to release a Southern Appalachian Brook Trout into Stony CreekPhoto Credits: Casey Phillips/Tennessee Aquarium

For more than 130 years, the Southern Appalachian Brook Trout has constantly struggled to survive an ever-mounting combination of mostly human-induced threats. As a result, Tennessee’s only native trout species now occupies less than 15 percent of its historic range.

The Brook Trout’s range extends north into New England and Canada and westward into the Midwest, but the population in Southern Appalachian is genetically distinct. The restoration project aims to safeguard and preserve this unique community as an important component of the region’s natural heritage, says Marcia Carter, a fisheries biologist with the U.S. Forest Service.

“I think it’s the prettiest trout that we have,” Carter says. “Brook Trout are the only native trout species in Tennessee, so it’s important for us to maintain good populations to ensure their viability and also to provide recreational fishing for the public.”

The restoration program features the combined effort and resources of the Tennessee Aquarium Conservation Institute, U.S. Forest Service, Tennessee Wildlife Resources Agency and the Appalachian Chapter of Trout Unlimited. In the five years since the program’s inception, the Conservation Institute has hatched and released more than 1,400 of these distinctively olive-bodied, red-finned fish and pioneered new techniques for raising them.

“Working with the Tennessee Aquarium has been awesome since they provide facilities to raise the trout, so we can have even more fish to stock and have a faster restoration time,” Carter says. “Getting to work here with our partners doing Brook Trout restoration is just a happy day for me.”

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March of the Salamanders: Migration Studied at Tennessee Aquarium

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Each spring, thousands of Salamanders migrate within Tennessee’s woodlands, and biologists at the Tennessee Aquarium Conservation Institute are studying their movements as part of an effort to better understand the animals.

Like their cousins the Frogs and Toads, Salamanders are Amphibians. Most Salamanders hatch from eggs laid in water and become aquatic larvae known as tadpoles. The tadpoles metamorphose into adults that live in warm, moist places on land.

Tub of Spotted Salamanders
Tub of Spotted SalamandersPhoto Credit: Casey Phillips/Tennessee Aquarium

Why study Salamanders? Dr. Josh Ennen, a conservation biologist at the Tennessee Aquarium Conservation Institute, says that because of their sensitivity to environmental changes, scientists consider Salamanders and other Amphibians to be a kind of living bellwether for the health of the surrounding habitat.

“They’re almost like a canary in a coal mine,” Ennen said. “They’re a kind of indicator species that reflect the health of their ecosystem as a whole.”

The spring migration occurs when the adults return to the same pond they hatched in.  There, they mate and lay their own eggs. The Salamanders don’t travel far – maybe a few hundred feet – but getting to water is essential. If not laid in water, the jelly-covered eggs could dry out and die.

Salamanders migrate to vernal pools – small bodies of water that fill with winter and spring rains. These ephemeral ponds may only last a few weeks or months before drying out, but they last long enough for Amphibians to complete their life cycles. Vernal pools’ temporary nature means fish can’t live in them – and that’s important because fish would eat the Amphibians’ eggs.

Dr. Emmen and his colleagues collected, tagged, and released hundreds of Spotted and Mole Salamanders in just one day of their study. He notes that Salamanders migrate to the same pools for generation after generation.

Learn more and see additional photos below.

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Rare Four-Eyed Turtles Hatch at Tennessee Aquarium

1_Four-eyed Turtle and Beal's Four-eyed Turtle hatchlings

The Tennessee Aquarium recently celebrated the successful hatching of four endangered turtles.

When it comes to breeding some turtles, making even small changes to their environment can be like trying to introduce new foods to an especially picky eater.

“You don’t want to go changing a lot of stuff, or you may unsettle them and have to wait until next year to try again,” says Tennessee Aquarium Senior Herpetologist Bill Hughes. “With some turtle species, it doesn’t matter. With others, you move them to a different space, and they don’t lay eggs for five years. It throws them off track.”

Because of their fickleness and tendency to be slow to reproduce, every successful turtle-breeding season is significant, especially for imperiled species. At the Aquarium, Hughes recently celebrated the successful hatching of a pair each of endangered Four-eyed Turtles (Sacalia quadriocellata) and critically endangered Beal’s Four-eyed Turtles (Sacalia bealei).

The hatchlings emerged from their shells in the Tennessee Aquarium’s rooftop turtle nursery on June 13 (Four-eyed) and July 2-3 (Beal’s) from eggs that had been incubating at 82 degrees since being laid in April.

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3_Four-eyed Turtle (Sacalia quadriocellata) hatchlings

4_Beal's Four-eyed Turtle (Sacalia bealei) hatchlingsPhoto Credits: Tennessee Aquarium

The Aquarium is home to the largest collection of freshwater turtles in North America. In 2007, it received national attention as the first North American zoo or aquarium to successfully hatch a Beal’s Four-eyed Turtle.

In the last decade, the Aquarium has had continued success in hatching these “four-eyed” species, which are native to Southeast Asia and named due to eye-like markings on the top of their heads. Including the most recent babies, the Aquarium has successfully hatched 15 Beal’s Four-eyed and 37 Four-eyed Turtles since 2007.

In all, just 47 Four-eyed and 24 Beal’s Four-eyed are housed in North American facilities accredited by the Association of Zoos and Aquariums (AZA). Hatchlings raised at the Tennessee Aquarium have been shared with other caretakers in an effort to shore up their captive population. In 2015, a trio of Beal’s Four-eyed were sent to the Knoxville Zoo — the only other AZA institution to house them — and Four-eyed hatchlings have been shipped to facilities as far as New York, Texas and California.

In light of these turtles’ limited numbers, both in the wild and in captivity, Hughes says he’s largely opted to avoid tampering with his breeding setup for fear of derailing programs that are helping to significantly bolster their overall populations.

“The only thing I’ve really changed is cooling them off more in winter and incubating them a degree or two warmer,” he explains. “They’re all still in their same space they’ve been in for years, which is helping.”

Like many Southeast Asian species, both the Beal’s Four-eyed and Four-eyed Turtle wild populations have been in free fall in recent decades. This decline is thanks to a combination of human-induced threats, including habitat destruction and capture for use as a food source or to supply the pet trade.

According to a 2014 study by the International Union for Conservation of Nature, 50-60 percent of the 335 modern turtle and tortoise species are either extinct or threatened with extinction. That gives them the dubious distinction as the most imperiled major group of vertebrates on the planet.

The Aquarium’s successful rearing of Beal’s Four-eyed and Four-eyed Turtles is crucial to their survivability. Hughes serves as the coordinator of the Species Survival Plan (SSP) for the Four-eyed Turtle since that plan became active in 2012. This year, the Beal’s Four-eyed Turtle became a candidate for the program, and Hughes says the turtle’s conservation status puts it on the fast track to achieving full SSP status in the future.

Even after years of success in raising them, Hughes never tires of seeing new turtles emerge from their eggs. And as you would expect from such dogged creatures of habit, they tend to arrive almost like clockwork, he says.

“They lay at the same time or year, and the eggs hatch at the same time of year, so it’s like a floating holiday that doesn’t float that much. You know when it’s coming,” Hughes says. “It’s still a thrill to see them.”

Photo below by Todd Stailey, Tennessee Aquarium photographer, showing the ocelli, "false eyes", of the Four-eyed Turtle5_FOUREYEDTURTLE


Gentoo Penguin Chick Has ‘Big’ Happy Feet

1_Gentoo Penguin chick at 21 days old credit Casey Phillips Tennessee Aquarium

It may only weigh a few pounds, but two of the biggest features of the Tennessee Aquarium’s newest Gentoo Penguin chick have already earned it an unofficial nickname.

Born on June 5 to experienced parents Bug and Big T., the large feet of the newest addition to Penguins’ Rock immediately inspired the moniker “Big Foot.”

“Our animal trainer Holly Gibson chose that name, and it is very fitting,” says Senior Aviculturist Loribeth Lee. “Besides his belly, the feet are the biggest thing on this guy right now! Penguin chicks have almost comically large feet until they grow into them. Having big feet helps Penguins to balance while they are so oddly shaped.”

This nickname is just a placeholder. It will be replaced by an official name, chosen from a crop of keeper-selected alternatives, during a public contest on the Aquarium’s Facebook page later this year.

2_The Gentoo Penguin chick at two days old credit Casey Phillips Tennessee Aquarium

3_Gentoo Penguin Chick at two days old credit Casey Phillips Tennessee Aquarium

4_Senior Aviculturist Loribeth Lee holds the new baby Gentoo Penguin credit Casey Phillips Tennessee AquariumPhoto Credits: Casey Phillips / Tennessee Aquarium

Aquarium staff began noticing signs that the new chick was breaking out of its egg, a process called “pipping,” at 8 a.m. on June 5. The baby Gentoo was fully hatched at 3:30 p.m., a faster-than-average pace, Lee says.

The chick’s gender will remain indeterminate until November, when it can be properly assessed by staff during the colony’s next round of semi-annual physical exams. A drop of the chick’s blood will be sent to a lab, and the DNA results will be available a few days later.

For now, the Aquarium’s Penguin experts are closely monitoring the chick’s growth and health, Lee says.

“The first four weeks of a chick’s life are the most concerning, as there are lots of obstacles to overcome,” she says. “We will continue to keep a close eye on this little bird, especially making sure the nest stays clean and the chick continues to get fed by both parents.”

Until the arrival of its waterproof adult feathers in six to seven weeks, the chick will remain safely corralled with its parents behind a clear, acrylic “play pen.” This barrier around the nest keeps nosey neighbors at flipper’s length away and prevents the baby Penguin from accidentally tumbling into the water.

Despite the uncertainty of this early period in its development, so far the chick has exhibited robust vitals and a healthy appetite. And it is gaining weight at a healthy rate, which indicates the chick’s body should start catching up with its enormous feet soon.

“We like to see the chicks on the higher end of the weight range, as if they do have a drop in weight at any point, then it is less critical than a bird who is on the low end of the weight range,” she says.

The chick’s parents, Bug and Big T., are one of the exhibit’s most prolific breeding pairs, having successfully hatched four chicks: Roxie, Bobber, Rodan and Terk. In all, the residents of Penguins’ Rock have hatched 20 chicks since 2009.

“Even after seeing over 20 chicks hatch here, it never gets old,” Lee says. “It’s so exciting to have a new young one in the group and watching our guests enjoy their progress! The best part of my job is seeing thriving birds in the exhibit, and this one seems to be doing well so far.”

The chick will reach its full, adult size when it is about 75 days old and its full adult weight a few months later after its swim muscles develop.

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Tiny Chicken Turtles Hatch at Tennessee Aquarium

1_baby chicken trutles - all three

Three Chicken Turtles hatched in mid-April at the Tennessee Aquarium. The tiny trio hatched from eggs that were laid in January by adults in the Aquarium’s ‘Delta Swamp’ exhibit.

At their initial exam, each of these hatchlings measured less than two inches long. As adults, they will grow to about 10 inches in length.

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3_baby chicken turtle with rulerPhoto Credits: Tennessee Aquarium

The Chicken Turtle (Deirochelys reticularia) is an uncommon freshwater turtle native to the southeastern United States.

The name "chicken" commonly refers to the taste of their meat, which, at one time, was popular in southern U.S. markets. The species is characterized by a long neck and unique coloring, which could also contribute to the reason for their name.

The Tennessee Aquarium’s herpetologists often point out that Chicken Turtles look as if they are wearing striped pants when viewed from behind.

Chicken Turtles are semiaquatic turtles, found both in water and on land. They prefer quiet, still bodies of water such as shallow ponds and lakes, ditches, marshes, cypress swamps, and bays. They prefer water with dense vegetation and soft substrate.

The turtles are omnivorous, eating crayfish, fish, fruits, insects, invertebrates, frogs, tadpoles, and plants. During the first year of their lives, they are almost completely carnivorous.

Eggs hatch in about 152 days. The turtles lay eggs during the winter months, with the eggs hatching in the spring. The eggs undergo diapauses: meaning, the eggs don’t develop immediately after laying as with other species of turtles.

The Chicken Turtle is currently classified as “Least Concern” by the IUCN. Populations are currently considered stable throughout their range, although they do face potential threats.

Habitat destruction reduces suitable habitat for foraging, migration, and hibernation. Chicken Turtles are sometimes killed while crossing roadways, as they migrate between habitats.


Four ‘Fierce’ Panther Chameleons Hatch in Tennessee

1_Baby Panther Chameleon at the Tennessee Aquarium 3

Four tiny (but fiercely-cute) Panther Chameleons recently hatched at the Tennessee Aquarium!

After hatching, from eggs laid in January of this year, the babies measured in at around two inches long. They are now growing quickly under the care provided by Tennessee Aquarium herpetologists.

The daily routine for these tiny reptiles includes feeding them small insects (along with calcium and vitamins twice a day), cleaning their environment, and spraying them with lukewarm water.

Right now these babies, along with their parents, live in a backup area at the Aquarium, but it is hoped that these creatures will be viewable by the public in the near future.

2_Baby Panther Chameleon at the Tennessee Aquarium

3_Baby Panther Chameleon at the Tennessee Aquarium 4Adult male Panther Chameleon:

4_Adult Male Panther Chameleon at the Tennessee AquariumPhoto Credits: Tennessee Aquarium

Panther Chameleons (Furcifer pardalis) are native to tropical forest biome areas of Madagascar. Like other chameleon species, Panther Chameleons display a wide array of colors. Females are typically peach, pink or grey while the males have red, blue or green color patterns. Babies have a more neutral coloring until they reach reproductive maturity at several months old.

These fascinating reptiles are carnivorous and eat a variety of insects in the wild. Chameleons are stealthy hunters, using a sticky, mucus-covered tongue to strike their prey and pull it back into their mouths.

Male Panther Chameleons can grow up to 20 inches (51 cm) in length, with a typical length of around 17 inches (43 cm), and females are smaller, at about half that size.

Panther Chameleons can reach sexual maturity at around seven months old. When carrying eggs, females turn dark brown or black with an orange stripe to signify to males they have no intention of mating.

Females usually live two to three years after laying eggs (with a total of between five and eight clutches) because of the stress put on their bodies. Females can lay between 10 and 40 eggs per clutch, depending on the food and nutrient consumption during the period of development. Eggs typically hatch in 240 days.

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Gentoo Penguin Chicks Hatch at Tennessee Aquarium

1_Baby Penguins at the TN Aquarium 2015

Three baby Gentoo Penguins are warming the hearts of Tennessee Aquarium guests this summer. Like the Macaroni Penguin, which was the first to hatch at the Aquarium in 2015, this trio has made remarkable progress since they first arrived at the end of June.

Two of the chicks are actually siblings, but are being raised by different penguin mothers. “When Bug and Big T’s first egg hatched, they were having a tough time keeping both the second egg and the chick underneath them,” said senior aviculturist Loribeth Lee. “Biscuit and Blue did not have a viable egg this year, so we were able to move the second egg into their nest. It hatched a couple of days later and they have done a beautiful job caring for their adopted chick.”

2_Baby Gentoo Penguins at the TN Aquarium 2015

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4_IMG_5700Photo Credits: Tennessee Aquarium

This is the first time a baby penguin has been raised at the Aquarium by surrogate parents. In the past, aviculturists have supplemented feedings for any chicks that were not receiving enough nourishment from their parents. “We always prefer to let the parents raise their chicks, but we’ll intervene whenever necessary,” said Lee. “Since Biscuit and Blue have been diligent parents in the past, we believed they would do a great job caring for Bug and Big T’s chick and they have.”

In addition to their rapid growth, the three newest Gentoos are now showing their individuality. The experts caring for them say these penguins have personalities that range from passive to positively pecky. “The chick in Biscuit and Blue’s nest acts pretty mellow, preferring to hide its head under mom or dad,” said Lee. “Bug and Big T’s other chick is pretty perky and active, but nothing like Nipper’s chick. He acts feisty just like his father and loves to bite and squawk a lot.”

These traits will be interesting for Aquarium guests to watch over time. Lee and the other experts spend quite a bit of time pointing out the chicks and talking about their lives during penguin programs, which take place at 10:30am and 1:30pm each day.

The gender of the penguin chicks will be determined later this fall when every bird in the colony undergoes a thorough physical examination. A blood sample will be collected from the juvenile birds that will be sent to a lab for DNA testing to determine whether the new additions are male or female. A naming contest on the Aquarium’s Facebook page will begin after the genders are announced.

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Tiny Endangered Turtles Hatch at Tennessee Aquarium

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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.

Continue reading after the fold.

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