It’s that time of year — time to plunge into another season of Holland Lifelong Learning. This six-part adult lecture series, now in its fifth year, strives to connect adults with scientists in a comfortable and casual setting. What was on tap for this year’s opener? Pawley’s Island Brewing’s “What the Shell!” IPA and an informative lecture on turtles, of course!
The Turtle Survival Alliance (TSA) is a 501 (c)3 organization committed to zero turtle extinctions around the world. TSA’s greatest undertaking was creating the Turtle Survival Center (TSC), located right outside of Summerville, with the goal to create colonies of the most endangered turtle species by using the Lowcountry climate to their advantage and creating naturalistic enclosures.
Nathan Haislip, facilities manager and lead keeper at TSC, highlighted these global efforts. Turtles species have the highest percentage of near-extinction out of any group of vertebrates(animals with backbones). The “Asian Turtle Crisis” exploded in the mid-1900s with many species harvested overseas for food, medicine and the pet trade. Do we have enough time to save them? “We don’t know,” stated Haislip. Turtles take many years to mature and have very small clutch sizes; their supply of young can’t keep up with the rapidly depleting demand for adults. TSC is currently caring for 20 of the 25 most endangered species of turtle in the world. This breeding effort is successful because TSA strives to work with foreign communities.
They create a foundation of respect, understanding and value by involving young conservationists living in the turtles’ homeland. During one reintroduction on holy land, turtles had markings carved into their shells that translated to: “harm me and harm will come to you.” “No one wants bad turtle juju!” smiled Haislip. The TSA is also known for their speedy response and confiscations. In one case, almost 4,000 illegally harvested Palawan forest turtles were intercepted. Filling the bed of a truck, the number of turtles confiscated was more than were thought to exist in the world. TSA’s work with the Burmese star tortoise gained wide recognition, as released individuals have recently produced offspring in the wild. Guests also got to see one up close, as Brutus sauntered through the seats to make sure everyone was paying attention.
A unified turtle community works to support breeding and reintroduction studies through funding and shared expertise. Many zoos and aquariums support the work of TSA, including the South Carolina Aquarium. “We’re all connected. The work we do comes full circle. What we learn about animals like turtles is applied to human medicine. We can then turn around and apply human techniques back to animals,” stated Dr. Shane Boylan, the Aquarium’s senior veterinarian. Boylan has worked with TSA for nearly 20 years, dating back to his time triaging patients as a first-year veterinary student. Innovative ideas are used to establish a baseline of knowledge for turtles that we know almost nothing about. Even definitively telling male from female, in these lesser known species, is a relatively new capability. As you can imagine, this is especially important before sending turtles to a new facility for breeding.
Dr. Shane’s work has answered many questions about shell disease, respiratory illnesses, reproduction and even fungal infections but has uncovered many, many more questions. “We don’t know,” repeated Boylan over and over. Guests “oo’ed” and “ahh’ed” as Dr. Shane showed them endoscope images from inside a Sulawesi forest turtle’s ovary, colon, lungs and egg. One of the most beneficial pieces of equipment onsite, the
CT scanner, captures detailed images of complex turtle body cavities that could not be captured with x-ray technology. If only turtles could talk, maybe we would know the full story of how one turtle was stepped on by an elephant, traveled around the world and was able to regrow bone cover. The rapid loss of these species ties directly into the rapid loss of information. Thanks to enduring partnerships like the TSA and South Carolina Aquarium, there is hope for many turtle species. One day, we’ll be able to to say, “we do know.”
Thank you to our sponsors: Mary and Mason Holland, Chris Kauker of Ameriprise Financial, Turtle Survival Alliance and Pawley’s Island Brewing.
Excited for the next Holland Lifelong Learning lecture? View the list of upcoming sessions.