Friday, November 22, 2013

Keeper Spotlight: Bill Hughes

Keeper spotlight is a monthly series about the staff and volunteers that care for the plants and animals living at the Tennessee Aquarium. You can tweet your questions to us at @TNAquarium using the hashtag #QTheKeeper.

Name: Bill Hughes

Title: Senior Herpetologist

In charge of: Flooded Forest, Amazon, Zaire River, Color and Camouflage, Rain Forest Pond exhibits in Rivers of the World, Salamander exhibits in the Tennessee River Gallery, Aquarium turtle breeding areas and incubator/nursery room. Also oversees shipping of turtles and amphibians to and from other AZA-accredited institutions.

Turtles are often looked at as some of the slowest members of the animal kingdom so you might find it hard to believe that caring for them takes so much time and energy. Bill Hughes began working at the Aquarium in July 2004 and has had his hands full with one of the largest collections of turtles in the U.S. ever since. 

Raising Baby Turtles

A typical work day for Bill starts at 7:00 a.m. with a stop in to the Aquarium’s turtle nursery. Checking on tiny hatchlings and eggs in the incubator room can be a big job.  The baby turtles get fed a special diet and cleaned according to their needs three to four times per week.  If any eggs are hatching on that particular day Bill also takes steps to set up a space for the new turtle in the incubator room.

Turtle eggs in the Aquarium's incubator room

Wrangling Reptiles (and Amphibians)

Once the baby turtles are fed and happy, Bill heads down to feed the animals in his care within the Rivers of the World exhibit. Feeding all these animals can sometimes take more than one hour – and requires repeated trips back to check on their progress.   He feeds turtles in the Flooded Forest and the small Amazon exhibit. The caiman lizard in this Amazon exhibit also gets fed clams a couple of times per week.  Snakes in the second Amazon exhibit get fed thawed rodents every two to three weeks.  The dwarf crocodile in the Zaire exhibit gets fed thawed rodents when the snakes are fed.

Next, he checks and feeds the mossy frogs in the Color and Camouflage exhibit. This exhibit also gets misted every day and a complete water change is done weekly. He then examines and feeds the aquatic caecilians. Their tank gets a weekly water change as well. Bill continues on to the Salamander exhibits. Compared to the turtles, Salamanders are low maintenance and these tanks usually just need a bit of spot cleaning and an occasional water change. 

Bill Hughes watering a turtle tank

Turtle Matchmaking

Afterward, Bill heads up to work with turtles living in a special off-exhibit area often used to encourage breeding on the sixth level of the River Journey building.  Feeding these turtles is a quick process but cleaning them all can take up to five hours. During the spring and summer, he checks nest boxes daily.  Depending on the species of turtle, he places males and females together.  Special projects in this space like plumbing, trimming plants, scrubbing algae and changing lights also fall on to Bill’s to do list. 

Bill Hughes introducing a new animal to the Aquarium's quarantine room

Later, Bill spends his time caring for animals in the “Q room” which are going through a routine quarantine period before being placed on exhibit in the Aquarium.  Another special area in the Q room contains non-quarantine animals that need lower temperatures, such as black-breasted leaf turtles and hellbenders.  The temperature in the cold room varies from upper 60’s – low 70’s during the summer to mid 40’s during the winter.  This winter, several turtles from the area on level six will be cooled down in this space in order to facilitate breeding. The quarantine rooms also hold reptiles and amphibians that require medical care. 

You might think that taking care of so many creatures with such differing needs could be overwhelming but Bill says, “The best part of working in this field is that every day is different and there are always surprises and new problems to solve.”

A turtle being housed in the Aquarium's cold room.

Species Tracking and Conservation

In his spare time, Bill uses his extensive knowledge about turtle species as the studbook keeper and coordinator for three Species Survival Plan (SSP) programs – the Spiny Turtle, Arakan Forest Turtle and Four-eyed Turtle - and the studbook keeper for a fourth, the Keeled Box Turtle. (This means that he is in charge of documenting each individual animal of his assigned species living in zoo or aquarium care.)  He also serves on the Chelonian Taxon Advisory Group (TAG) steering committee and the AZA Institutional Data Management Advisory Group.  

Four-eyed turtle at the Tennessee Aquarium

While Bill says that he enjoys working with each species at the Aquarium, he is especially proud of the Aquarium’s success with breeding some of the threatened and endangered species like the spiny turtle and four-eyed turtle. Aquarium guests can see some of the juveniles on display in the Turtle Gallery.

Got a question for Bill? Tweet it to us at @TNAquarium with  hashtag #QTheKeeper. 

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