Some of the most important work the Oklahoma City Zoo does isn't even seen by visitors but it can yield big results when it comes to preserving a species.
The zoo welcomed a Madagascar Flat-tailed turtle into its collection last month. The turtle's birth made news in zoo circles because it was the first birth for the species in a zoo this year.
There are an estimated 10,000 to 16,000 Madagascar Flat-tailed turtles in the wild and fewer than 150 currently in zoos, making it a critically endangered species.
In 2012, only three U.S. zoos had hatchlings.
“Critically endangered means they are one step away from extinction,” zoo curator Stacey Sekscienski said.
About 30 percent of the turtle's habitat has been lost since the 1960s. That has been the result of land clearing for cattle grazing, oil drilling and the export of the turtles to pet owners around the world.
The Madagascar Flat-tailed turtle is part of the Association of Zoos and Aquarium's Species Survival Plan.
The goal is to keep the species from becoming extinct, and with genetically valuable offspring. Those are called founder animals and help create genetic diversity necessary for the species to live on.
“One way to picture that is it's not a good idea to marry someone you're related to because that can cause genetic problems down the line,” Sekscienski said. “It's much the same way with animals. The founder animals that have that genetic diversity are very important.”
Oklahoma City's turtle was hatched with the help of a wine chiller bought off Craigslist. The turtles require about six months of incubation, and the wine chiller was perfect for controlling temperature and humidity.
The Knoxville Zoo is one of the leaders in the research on the turtle. That zoo hatched the first Madagascar Flat-tail in North America in the 1970s and has about 30 in its collection. Curator Michael Ogle said Oklahoma City's efforts to hatch one is an important development for the long term survival of the species.
“It's great when a new institution comes along and hatches one,” Ogle said. “For the long term survival we need to have these first generation animals raised up.
Then they eventually become breeders.”
Ogle said Oklahoma City's location also makes the hatchling all the more unique.
“It is somewhat rare,” he said. “Most of the zoos that have had success have been southeastern zoos because they really like humidity. You have to give them a lot of respect for the amount of time and effort they have put into making this happen.”
It's an effort that usually goes unnoticed by zoo visitors. Neither the hatchling nor the two males at the zoo will be put on display.
“They are very shy and reclusive animals,” Sekscienski said. “Other zoos that have tried to put them on exhibit have found that they usually perish in a few months. They don't make great exhibit animals anyway. They are active right when the sun comes out and then bury themselves during the middle of the day.”
Still, helping a species survive is work that is taken very seriously by the keepers involved in the hatchling project. Rachel Carpinski was the first zoo staffer to discover the incubated egg had hatched, something she said was exciting to experience.
“I take great satisfaction in knowing I have a role in their population growth and making sure they continue to live on,” she said.