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Dec. 1, 2022
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Freshwater Turtle Research at Memphis Zoo

Freshwater Turtle Research at Memphis Zoo

Have you ever wandered through the Memphis Zoo and seen a bird, squirrel, or turtle and thought, “what is that doing here?”. It is sometimes odd to see an animal from the wild wandering around the Zoo as we assume it should be in an exhibit of some sort. Jen Terry, a Ph.D. candidate at Arkansas State University, thought the same thing and that is why she began to ask questions about the freshwater turtles she would see around the Memphis Zoo. Jen decided to dedicate her time to the freshwater turtles she would encounter around the Zoo and use this research to continue her studies as a Ph.D. student under the guidance of Dr. Lori Neuman-Lee and with the help of technician, Alexia Vanoven. Jen began to wonder if guests know about the turtles living at the Zoo and how they were being taken care of if they were not part of the official Zoo collection.

She observed the Zoo staff caring for the turtles, but she had more questions that needed answers. Her main questions were who are these turtles, where did they come from and what are they doing here? Jen understood that even though these turtles are not official zoo animals, they represent an opportunity to connect patrons to local wildlife. To Jen, it is the idea that science should not be done behind closed doors all the time, but we should try to bridge the gap and connect science with everyday life. 

This was the first summer Jen and her team begin working closely with these turtles and attempted to capture them to answer questions. Under the direction of Courtney Janney (Director of Animal Programs) and Dr. Sinlan Poo (Curator of Research), Jen worked with Zoo staff in the China and Teton zones, as well as in water quality facilities, to get access to the areas the turtles were using and would walk around and scout the potential bodies of water for turtles. There are about 13 turtles in the China pond, and their sizes drastically vary. For some, you might think they were put there on purpose; however, those turtles decided to make the Memphis Zoo their home! 

Once she captured the turtles, Jen took blood samples to run her lab work. She studied the overall health of these turtles, taking a closer look at their hormones. By recording trends over time, she plans to set up a long term dataset so that she can answer her questions about the animal. She wants to continue to do yearly checkups with the Zoo animals and compare them to animals that truly live in the wild. Overall, Jen wants people to realize that while there are foreign places that have very exotic animals, there are also fascinating animals we should care about and protect that are right in our backyards here in Memphis. We should be working to protect these day-to-day animals just as much as the major animals you see in a nature documentary


Jen Terry is an Environmental Sciences Ph.D student at Arkansas State University. She graduated from Bucknell University (2016) with a BA in Animal Behavior and Environmental Studies minor and graduated from Arkansas State University (2021) with a MS in Biology. Her current research examines physiology and population modeling of red-eared sliders (Trachemys scripta) and has worked with amphibians, reptiles, birds, and mammals in research, rehabilitation, and zoo contexts. Jen began her passion for animals, conservation, and the impact of zoological institutions as a high school education volunteer at the Philadelphia Zoo. jenterry.weebly.com

Dr. Lori Neuman-Lee is an Assistant Professor at Arkansas State University. Her lab focuses on examining the physiology of organisms in their environment. She specializes in work at the intersection of immunology, endocrinology, and reproduction. http://neumanleelab.weebly.com/

Alexia Vanoven is an undergraduate Wildlife, Fisheries, and Conservation major at Arkansas State University. She served as Jen's primary field technician in 2022, in which she helped capture and sample freshwater turtles both in Northeast Arkansas and at the Memphis Zoo.