On Nov. 6, Senior Herpetologist Bill Hughes found a surprise hiding in one of the female turtle enclosures on the sixth level of River Journey — a newly hatched Spiny Turtle (Heosemys spinosa). Based on the state of its umbilical scar at the time of discovery, Hughes estimates the turtle was about a week old when it was found.
This semi-aquatic species is found in the undergrowth of lowland forests and rainforests throughout Southeast Asia from Southern Myanmar and Thailand to Singapore and the Philippines. In this terrain, its coloration helps it to effectively camouflage itself among the leaf litter, where it feeds mainly on fallen fruit and vegetation.
The International Conservation of Nature classifies the Spiny Turtle (also known as the Spiny Terrapin and Spiny Hill Terrapin) as endangered, thanks to a combination of threats, including its desirability among pet collectors.
“Successful breeding in zoos and the private sector has increased in the past decade, so keeping track of parentage in order to maintain a genetically viable population has become important,” Hughes says.
The Tennessee Aquarium has contributed greatly to the population of this species housed in human care. All of these turtles — 92 individuals across 12 institutions — are managed under the oversight of a Species Survival Plan.
Since 2007, 19 Spiny Turtles have hatched at the Aquarium. Many of these hatchlings subsequently were shared with other institutions around the country, including the Lake Superior Zoo in Duluth, Minnesota, the Turtle Survival Center in Charleston, South Carolina, and the California Academy of Science and Steinhart Aquarium in San Francisco.
This latest hatchling may end up in the turtle nursery exhibit in the Tennessee River Gallery of the River Journey building, but if that relocation happens, it won’t be for a while, Hughes says. In the meantime, visitors interested in laying eyes on this prickly-shelled reptile can see two younger Spiny Turtles in the Asian-themed exhibit, also in Turtle World.
Did you know? The intensely serrated edges of the scutes (plates) ringing the shells of young Spiny Turtles don’t last long. These projections will diminish over time and are far less pronounced by the time the turtles reach adulthood.