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Keeping American Turtles SAFE

By Dave Collins
min read

In March 2019, I received an email that would alter the course of my career.

A colleague in Ohio was working with several populations of spotted turtles that were in steep decline. He and his partner organizations had been head-starting by hatching eggs from females from these populations. But the populations were too small to provide enough youngsters to make a difference. He needed to find a better donor source.

He contacted me, as the Association of Zoos and Aquariums Spotted Turtle Species Survival Plan coordinator, to see if I could help. Despite the fact that there were over 300 spotted turtles in more than 60 AZA-accredited facilities, I couldn’t. While the population was being managed to preserve genetic diversity, it was managed as a single population since all spotted turtles are considered to be the same.

With respect to conservation, however, the state of the art, or rather the state of the science, in the field was telling a different story. No one was suggesting splitting spotted turtles into multiple species. But neither did most biologists feel it was a good idea to introduce a Florida spotted turtle into Maine, or Ohio for that matter.

There is a federally funded range wide study underway that will develop a genetic “library” of the species that will provide a better understanding of the genetic diversity across the species’ range and allow us to determine the provenance of turtles from unknown locations. 

Dave Collins holds a spotted turtle hatchling

This will help us sort out the origins of many of the individuals in our collections to hopefully be more useful in regional conservation programs. But importantly, it will allow us to determine where turtles confiscated in the illegal trade came from, helping law enforcement to both prosecute and prevent illegal wildlife trade as well as putting these displaced turtles on a path back to their native range.

With our native turtles facing significant declines from habitat loss, the illegal trade is an additional threat that many populations simply cannot bear; many are declining to the point that they cannot recover. 

They need serious help, but the situation is not hopeless. 

The significant resources of AZA-accredited facilities combined with those of the U.S Fish and Wildlife Service, state wildlife agencies, and numerous NGO’s and academic institutions, represent a formidable force to counter these threats. We just need one good plan to bring these actors together.

Endangered spotted turtle hatchlings at the Tennessee Aquarium.

AZA SAFE: Saving Animals From Extinction, is built around the One Plan approach developed by the International Union for Conservation of Nature Conservation Planning Specialist Group (CPSG). I felt an epiphany when I read:

“The One Plan approach to species conservation is the development of management strategies and conservation actions by all responsible parties for all populations of a species.

Traditionally, species conservation planning has followed two parallel but separate tracks. Field biologists, wildlife managers, and conservationists monitor wild populations and develop conservation strategies and actions to conserve threatened species. Meanwhile, the zoo and aquarium community develops long-term goals for sustaining ex situ populations.”

We clearly needed to bring these tracks together and SAFE was the perfect vehicle.

Tennessee Aquarium Director of Forests and Animal Behavior, Dave Collins, checks in on a wood turtle in the North American turtles exhibit of the Aquarium’s recently opened Turtles of the World gallery.

The flexibility of the SAFE program allowed me to reach across enumerable lines to bring together partners from almost every conceivable conservation arena. The power of the AZA brand—a widely respected voice in conservation—helped start many conversations and open many doors.

Despite the challenges so many of us now face with the pandemic,  SAFE American turtles has already grown from 13 zoo partners at the time of our approval to 20 current zoo partners, and half again that many expressing interest in coming onboard as we see more clearly what lies ahead. In addition, we enjoy the partnership of over 30 field partners: representing government agencies, academic institutions, and conservation organizations.

And, in barely more than a year’s time, my four-decade involvement with AZA has taken on a new sense of purpose and clarity.

All photos: © Casey Phillips, Tennessee Aquarium.

Top: Tennessee Aquarium Director of Forests and Animal Behavior, Dave Collins, holds a spotted turtle hatchling. Collins serves as program leader and coordinator of the new AZA SAFE American turtles program, which focuses on safeguarding this endangered species, as well as the wood turtle, bog turtle, Blanding’s turtle, and species classified as terrapenes.

Middle: Endangered spotted turtle hatchlings at the Tennessee Aquarium. 


Bottom: Tennessee Aquarium Director of Forests and Animal Behavior, Dave Collins, checks in on a wood turtle in the North American turtles exhibit of the Aquarium’s recently opened Turtles of the World gallery. This species is one of four specific species, as well as all terrapenes, protected by the new AZA SAFE American turtles program.

Dave Collins is the Director of Forests and Animal Behavior at the Tennessee Aquarium in Chattanooga, Tenn.


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