In countless cultures around the world, turtles have been revered as symbols of hardiness, tenacity and perseverance. True to form, these shelled reptiles slowly established themselves on almost every continent in the eons since they shared the planet with dinosaurs.
Without a doubt, however, one of the places turtles have received the warmest welcome is at the Tennessee Aquarium, the home to an amazingly abundant and diverse public display of turtles.
Since the Aquarium opened in 1992, guests have been thrilled by the many turtles living alongside fascinating creatures from around the world. From swamp-like environs featuring both American Alligators, Alligator Gar and Alligator Snapping Turtles to exotic islands where Ring-tailed Lemurs and Radiated Tortoises coexist, tens of millions of visitors have marveled at the adaptability of these animals.
On March 13, the Aquarium’s turtle experts will cut the ribbon on the new Turtles of the World gallery. As they explore this new hall in the River Journey building, guests will encounter more than 30 turtle species and a wealth of fun interactive elements that show how scientists and homeowners alike are working to preserve these beloved reptiles for future generations to appreciate.
“We want to convey four ideas with this gallery: that turtles are cool, they’re in trouble, what we’re doing to help them and what you can do,” said Jeff Worley, the Aquarium’s manager of exhibit services.
Upon entering the new gallery, visitors will see four large exhibits depicting habitats found in the Southeastern U.S. and Southeast Asia. Because of their abundance of species, these regions are described by scientists as “hotspots” of turtle diversity.
The two largest habitats in this first group of exhibits have water features. All of them incorporate enormous glass panels that offer unobstructed views of their residents as they clamber over and under vegetation, bask or dive beneath the surface.
Later, visitors will see an exhibit full of sinuous Snake-necked Turtles. Only found in Australia and other South Pacific islands, these unusual-looking turtles are keen swimmers and have serpentine necks so long they can’t be retracted into their shells.
The centerpiece of the new gallery is a working “turtle nursery” where guests can watch Aquarium herpetologists and animal care specialists as they tend to dozens of adorable hatchlings. This huge laboratory will host special programs and features sliding panels so animal experts can interact with guests while they work.
These tiny turtles aren’t just the smallest (and cutest) in the gallery, they also represent some of the most imperiled species on the planet.
The hatchlings being exhibited were confiscated from the turtle trafficking trade or were sent to the Aquarium through a partnership with the South Carolina-based conservation group Turtle Survival Alliance and other partners. Many of these miniature turtles are Southeast Asian species that are endangered or critically endangered and are being kept as “assurance colonies” against the possibility of extinction.
In addition to its obvious cute factor, the nursery fulfills an important goal of the new gallery to raise awareness of the many challenges turtles face in the wild, said Dave Collins, the Aquarium’s director of forests and animal behavior.
“The Aquarium has always been a place you can come enjoy and learn about turtles because they’re something we’ve always highlighted,” he said. “The new gallery brings some new ideas in and showcases some new turtles we have an opportunity to exhibit, including some of the rarest in the world.”
Turtles of the World arrives just in time for spring break, and its layout features a wealth of design touches made with younger guests in mind. After visiting kiosks to playfully color their own turtles using touchscreens, they can learn about four inspiring turtle “success stories.” Another interactive game requires some strategic thinking to make decisions that turn a home into a haven for turtles.
Naturally, no trip through the Aquarium is complete without a picture or two, and Turtles of the World has a pair of memorable shell-fie opportunities. First, guests will feel positively tiny posing beside a life-size replica for a shell of Stupendemys, a now-extinct turtle the size of a small car. Next, visitors can do their best hatchling impersonation by crouching inside hollowed-out “eggshells” in an enormous turtle nest.
When the Aquarium team began designing this exciting new gallery, they mapped out two key missions, to inspire a love of turtles and an understanding of what it will take to keep them safe. Whether it is successful conservation efforts or just giving guests a chance to watch a tortoise hatchling snack on its lunch, Turtles of the World should achieve both its aims, Mr. Collins said.
“Turtles can live as long as we do, but no matter if they’re 40 years old or just a few months old, they’re relatable animals,” he said. “They have these big eyes you can look into, and there’s just something ageless about them. When you gaze into a turtle’s eyes, you really feel like you’re looking back in time.”
The opening of a new turtle-centric gallery is the latest event tied to the Aquarium’s Year of the Turtle celebration, but the focus on chelonians is readily apparent throughout the River Journey and Ocean Journey buildings.
As they explore, guests will encounter colorful, stylized “blazes” in galleries that mark the presence of turtles in an exhibit. This “Turtle Trail” shines a light on the Aquarium’s many turtle and tortoise residents and emphasizes its superlative as home to the largest collection of freshwater turtles in North America.
For a more thoughtfully interactive adventure along the Turtle Trail, visitors can request a trail guide from the visitor services desk in the River Journey building. This pocketable pamphlet is filled with fun facts and questions about turtles’ life history and is also available for download at https://www.tnaqua.org/images/uploads/subpages/Turtle_Trails_map_WEB.pdf . Guests will be reminded to relax and have fun while trekking the Turtle Trail at a leisurely pace.
Across the street, guests’ turtle-y awesome experience continues at the IMAX 3D Theater. Here, daily screenings of Turtle Odyssey 3D follow Bunji, a baby Green Sea Turtle, as she travels more than 1,000 miles after hatching on the shores of the Great Barrier Reef through the South Pacific Ocean. Along the way, viewers will meet many other colorfully charismatic residents in these life-filled waters and learn more about the efforts of conservationists to protect Bunji and the rest of her kind.
Before or after experiencing this giant screen adventure, guests can observe a large Green Sea Turtle gliding through the waters of the Aquarium’s Secret Reef exhibit.
For more information about the Year of the Turtle celebration and related activities, visit tnaqua.org/yearoftheturtle. For a plot synopsis and screening info about Turtle Odyssey 3D, visit tnaqua.org/imax/turtle-odyssey-3d.