Wild Inside: Saving bog turtles at Zoo Knoxville

Zoo Knoxville has been leading the way in bog turtle conservation since 1986.
Zoo Knoxville has been leading the way in bog turtle conservation since 1985
Published: Aug. 23, 2023 at 12:28 PM EDT
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KNOXVILLE, Tenn. (WVLT) - Bog Turtles were discovered in Tennessee in 1985. Since then, Zoo Knoxville has been at the forefront of bog turtle conservation.

Steven Nelson is the Herpetology Collection & Conservation Manager at Zoo Knoxville.

“Bern Tryon was the former Director of Herpetology before his untimely passing in 2011,” said Nelson. “He started doing research and bringing these turtles and kind of just studying them. So the zoo has had a very long-term, pretty significant program for bog turtles.”

Bog turtles are small, only growing to about the size of a fist.

“They can be 60-plus years old of that size, and they’re very habitat specific,” said Nelson.

Like they are named, bog turtles are fond in bogs and fens in Tennessee, but their native wetlands are disappearing.

“Their habitat has been severely impacted, either drained out for agricultural practices or houses, or poaching for the pet trade.”

The team at Zoo Knoxville is breeding bog turtles and putting them back into the wild, hoping to turn the tide for this critically endangered species.

“So these wetlands, sometimes there’s a little bit of muck and peat,” said Nelson. “These turtles rely on this muck and this peat to kind of vary into the ground to hide away from predators.”

Zoo staff recently went out to a bog to survey the bog turtles present.

“Some of the things that we do are overall population assessment of the turtles in Tennessee,” Nelson said. “It’s hard to protect and conserve what you don’t know is there, or how many are there.”

While trudging through the muck and looking for turtles is no small task, the zoo has also used technology to track the tiny turtles.

“We’ve done things like radio telemetry, which we put these little transmitters on the backs of turtles and track to see where they go,” said Nelson. “That’s actually led us to other bogs that we didn’t know existed.”

To learn more about the bog turtle program at Zoo Knoxville, stop by the ARC (Amphibian and Reptile Conservation Campus) or click here!