The Environmental Journal of Southern Appalachia

Hai! It’s a summer baby cuteness boom at the Tennessee Aquarium

Written by Casey Phillips

The Tennessee Aquariums Gentoo Penguin chick weighs more than two kilograms at just 28 days oldThe Tennessee Aquarium's Gentoo penguin chick weighs more than 2 kilograms at 28 weeks old. Casey Phillips/Tennessee Aquarium 

Baby penguin, endangered turtles and puffer fish are the newest additions to the Tennessee Aquarium

(Casey Phillips is a communications specialist at the Tennessee Aquarium in Chattanooga)

As any parent knows, kids tend to do whatever you least expect. In the case of an endangered four-eyed turtle hatchling at the Tennessee Aquarium, however, merely existing was — in itself — a huge surprise. 

On July 11, a volunteer was tending an enclosure in a backup area of the River Journey exhibit. This habitat was only supposed to house a female endangered four-eyed turtle (Sacalia quadriocellata, a largely montaine species native to parts of China and Vietnam), but the volunteer soon discovered that the adult turtle wasn’t alone. Perched atop a layer of vegetation was a tiny hatchling that, by all accounts, shouldn’t have been there.

“The adult female hadn’t been with a male in over a year, so we did not check to see if she had laid this year,” says Bill Hughes, the aquarium’s herpetology coordinator. “To say the least, finding an egg, let alone a hatchling, was unexpected.”

Tennessee Aquarium Herpetology Coordinator holds a recently hatched Four eyed TurtleTennessee Aquarium Herpetology Coordinator Bill Hughes holds a recently hatched endangered four-eyed turtle. Casey Phillips/Tennessee Aquarium

 Hughes says females of some turtle species have been documented to store sperm until conditions favor fertilization. This adaptation may be behind the unexpected hatching, but at the moment, the tiny turtle’s origins remain a mystery. 

The baby four-eyed joins another that hatched on June 10 from an egg husbandry staff were aware of and had been monitoring. The first hatchling emerged from an egg laid on April 15. Both are eating and doing well.

Since 2007, the aquarium has successfully hatched 47 four-eyed turtles, which are so named for the distinctive eye-like markings on the back of their heads. Found only in mountainous streams and ponds in Southeast Asia, this species has been listed as endangered by the International Union for Conservation of Nature since 2000, thanks to over-collection in the wild and habitat loss.

“These turtles fall under a species survival plan that I manage,” said Hughes, who also oversees a program managing the closely related, critically endangered Beal’s four-eyed turtle (Sacalia bealei). “Increasing their population is a long-term goal, so every hatchling is a step further in the right direction.”

Visitors to the aquarium can see adorable examples of four-eyed and Beal’s four-eyed turtles in the hatchling nursery of River Journey’s Turtles of the World Gallery.

But tiny turtles aren’t the only recent arrivals at the aquarium.

On June 24, the aquarium celebrated the arrival of a Gentoo penguin chick in the Penguins’ Rock gallery. It began the herculean task of leaving its egg two days earlier on June 22, when animal care specialists first saw its beak and heard its squeaking vocalizations. This fuzzy newcomer is the offspring of Flower (mom) and Blue (dad), a newly minted pair of veteran parents.

During a routine veterinary checkup the day after it hatched, the chick weighed 132 grams — about 4.5 ounces. After a month of attentive care by its parents and close observation by aquarium staff, the formerly tiny, peeping ball of fluff now weighs 2.4 kilograms (5.3 pounds), an increase of more than 1,800 percent. If a human child were to grow at the same rate, a newborn weighing seven pounds at birth would tip the scales at 127 pounds four weeks later. 

Size isn’t the only thing that’s bigger about the chick, though, says Loribeth Lee, the aquarium’s senior aviculturist.

“For the first two weeks, it was pretty mellow, just looking around and studying everything,” Lee says. “Once two weeks hit, though, it developed a strong personality and loves to yell and slap at anything that moves too close!”

At the moment, the chick is still being fed by its parents, but aquarists plan to begin hand-feeding it solid food in the next two weeks. Visitors to the aquarium can observe the chick in its nest, which is encircled by clear acrylic panels, for the next six to seven weeks, when it will be old enough to join the rest of the colony. Its gender will remain unknown, pending the results of a routine blood test in November.

To keep tabs on the aquarium’s Gentoo and Macaroni penguins, digital visitors can watch a live video feed of the Penguins’ Rock gallery at tnaqua.org/live/penguins-rock/.

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