Wild Inside: Zoo Knoxville working to save endangered turtles

Zoo Knoxville is leading the way in turtle conservation.
Go inside the ARC at Zoo Knoxville, to see how the zoo is leading the way in conservation.
Published: May. 3, 2023 at 9:04 AM EDT|Updated: May. 3, 2023 at 10:18 AM EDT
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KNOXVILLE, Tenn. (WVLT) - Join WVLT’s Harry Sullivan for “Wild Inside” every other Wednesday on WVLT, as we go behind the scenes at Zoo Knoxville. We’ll explore the animals, the conservation efforts, and the people who have devoted their lives to the future of animals.

For our first trip, we go inside the Clayton Family Amphibian and Reptile Conservation Campus, or “ARC.” The Zoo is saving turtles from both the other side of the world, and right in our own backyard.

It’s safe to say that Michael Ogle not only likes turtles... he loves them! Michael is the Curator of Herpetology at Zoo Knoxville. Herpetology is the fancy name for the study of amphibians (frogs, toads, salamanders, etc.) and reptiles (turtles, snakes, lizards, etc.).

The Asian Turtle Greenhouse at the ARC is set to temperatures well over 80 degrees. “It’s a nice place to live if you’re a turtle!” said Michael. The facility looks like a glass-domed football stadium. Inside, the high-tech facility keeps a perfect climate for both the Asian turtles and plants to live in.

“The species we have in here are ones that we are trying to breed or have successfully bred,” said Michael. “They’re either critically endangered or they’re extinct in the wild. We’re just trying to create viable assurance colonies to help keep the animals going.”

Michael and his team at Zoo Knoxville focus on 27 species of turtles from all over the world, with the majority of them classified as endangered, critically endangered or extinct in the wild.

While it might seem like a faraway problem, turtles in our own backyard are critically endangered too, like the bog turtle. Zoo Knoxville has the Bog Turtle Head-Starting Program, aimed at saving the species.

“We received eggs, we incubate them, we hatch them and we raise them,” he said. “We keep them for the first six to nine months in a special biosphere, so they don’t get any potential pathogens.”

The turtles are federally threatened and are found primarily along the Appalachian Mountains. Over the last two years, Zoo Knoxville has put back more than 75 bog turtles into the wild.

Zoo Knoxville also receives turtles from all over that were involved in the pet trade, many of them American box turtles, bound for the Asian pet trade.

“Box turtles live their entire home range in an area the size of one to two football fields,” he said. “That can prove tough in returning a turtle to its original home, increasing its chance of survival.”

To improve the odds, Michael and the team take blood samples from the box turtles, with the goal of finding out where they came from, and where they need to go back.

Turtles are just the beginning when it comes to animals that Zoo Knoxville is trying to save. To learn more about the conservation efforts and programs at Zoo Knoxville, or to see what animal you want featured next, click here.