Conservation Outdoors Pets, Animal Welfare

Wild Truth: Where Have All the Turtles Gone?

Some to Tennessee!

Photo courtesy of Sydney Bezanson, The Nature Conservancy

By Paula Musto

No larger than a small child’s palm, the tiny bog turtle is rare, reclusive and an undeniably cute critter. Like many turtle species worldwide, the population of these semi-aquatic creatures in our region has declined in alarming numbers. But, thanks to a neighbor, help is on the way—Western North Carolina hatchlings are spending winters, protected and safe, in Tennessee.

The program is called head-starting. Similar to the strategy that has worked for disadvantaged children in the US for decades, the turtle program enhances the chances that juveniles will successfully reach maturity by giving them a head start in life. Here’s how it works.

In a collaborative effort between several regional conservation organizations and Zoo Knoxville, turtle eggs are collected from grassy bogs in their native habitats in the Southern Appalachians. A prime location is north of Asheville where dozens of eggs have been taken over the past two years and transported to the TN zoo for incubation.

Photo courtesy of Sydney Bezanson, The Nature Conservancy

After hatchlings emerge, they are raised in captivity their first year, allowing them to grow stronger and larger in size than those maturing in the wild, thereby improving survival prospects once released back into the wild.

Zoo Knoxville has operated what is affectionately called the Bog Turtle Nursery since 1986 to support the species in the TN region. In 2021, the zoo began welcoming the out-of-towners, which are returned to NC for release into their native habitat.

“Head-starting is not a silver bullet for saving the turtles,” says Michael Ogle, the zoo’s curator of herpetology, who oversees the program. “But it’s a valuable piece in the conservationist’s toolbox—a way to buy time for the turtles as we hopefully protect, restore and preserve wetland areas.”

To appreciate the plight of the bog turtle, it’s important to understand the story of bogs—the spongy, peat-rich wetlands that were once plentiful in this region. “The first things Europeans did when they arrived here was dry the land for agriculture and build homes,” says Debbie Crane, communications director at The Nature Conservancy-North Carolina Chapter, one of the organizations participating in the bog turtle conservation effort. “Today, we continue to see great changes in the region’s landscape and its mountain bogs. More than 90 percent of what originally existed has been lost to draining, ponding and other development practices.”

Bog turtle eggs

Transforming landscapes has consequences. Disruptions to native habitat have made turtles highly vulnerable to predators—raccoons, skunks and opossums have easier access to nesting sites which has decimated the ability of females to produce offspring that survive into maturity. Bog turtles take six to seven years to reproduce and then only produce a small number of eggs, making them especially imperiled.

Of the 350 species of turtles identified worldwide, more than 60 percent are either threatened or have become extinct in modern times. “Turtles are among the most threatened of the vertebrates in the world, even more so than birds, mammals, fish or amphibians,” says Bill Hughes, a herpetology expert at the Tennessee Aquarium which houses more than 500 turtles including many rare species. “It’s ironic that turtles, among the most ancient creatures who walked the earth with dinosaurs millions of years ago, are now facing extinction. They survived all kinds of catastrophic stuff, outliving the dinosaurs, but they may not survive us.”

The primary cause of dwindling numbers is habitat destruction, but Hughes adds to the list traffic mortality and harvesting of the animals for food and the pet trade. Climate change is also taking a toll. In many turtle species, temperatures determine the gender of hatchlings. If eggs incubate at a low temperature, hatchlings will be males; at a higher temperature (as experienced with global warming), hatchlings are females. Viable breeding requires a more balanced sex ratio.

Hughes offers a number of reasons why these one-of-a-kind animals serve an important role in the web of life and how their loss would have serious consequences. Foremost, turtles serve as a clean-up crew, he says, eating dead plants, removing harmful bacteria and dispersing seeds. This nutrient recycling keeps living things in ecosystems, including us, healthy.

People can help turtles by not disturbing their nests and not littering—trash, including discarded fishing lines, can be lethal to wildlife. Hughes discourages keeping turtles as pets. It’s illegal in many states, including NC, to keep some species of turtles captive.

If you see a slow-moving turtle crossing a road, you can help it to the other side. Just keep it headed in the same direction. Redirecting a turtle or moving it to a new location will most often result in the turtle returning to the same spot and attempting to cross the road again.

Paula Musto is a volunteer for Appalachian Wildlife Refuge. To learn more or to donate, visit For more information on bog turtles, visit

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