by Jordan Gray 

Turtles. Texas. The former is arguably the most popular group of reptiles. The latter, well you know—”Everything is bigger in Texas.” And so it was that from Sunday, August 12th to Wednesday, August 15th, over 270 die-hard “turtle nerds” from around the world descended on Fort Worth, Texas for the 16th Annual Symposium on the Conservation and Biology of Tortoises and Freshwater Turtles.

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Attendees listen to Camila Ferrara (WCS-Brazil) deliver her Special Presentation on Turtle Sound Communication. Photo: Zachary Walde

Hosted by the IUCN-Tortoise and Freshwater Turtle Specialist Group and the Turtle Survival Alliance, and once again generously supported by our title sponsor Zoo Med Laboratories, the annual symposium is widely regarded as THE international gathering for the dissemination of chelonian information. This year’s symposium did not disappoint, featuring an impressive 96 oral presentations, 24 posters, 2 keynote addresses, 2 special features, and open discussions. Presentations and posters represented a diverse array of author backgrounds, countries, and topics including: Populations/Status, Asian Chelonians, Conservation, Field Studies/Techniques, Conservation & Policy in North America, the genus Graptemys, Headstarting, Genetics, Captive Husbandry, Zoos & Chelonians, Chelonian Communication, and Social Media Outreach.

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Attendees of the pre-conference field trip to the Trinity River process turtles captured for the Trinity River Turtle Survey. Photo: Ellie Campbell

The symposium unofficially kicked off with a field trip to the Trinity River led by TSA-North American Freshwater Turtle Research Group and Paschal High School’s award-winning science teacher Andrew Brinker. Here, attendees had the opportunity to capture, process, and learn about the numerous species of chelonia that call the Trinity River home, while learning about Andrew’s research project in the vicinity. That night, the symposium was officially kicked off with an ice breaker event hosted by the Hilton Fort Worth, the conference hotel. This night of schmoozing was followed the next morning by the annual opening address from TSA President Rick Hudson, and an introduction to and welcoming address from the TSA’s new Executive Director, Richard M. Hills.

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George Heinrich (Florida Turtle Conservation Trust) delivers his keynote address on “The Big Turtle Year.” Photo: Zachary Walde

For the next three days, attendees were saturated with the sharing of chelonian knowledge. On Day 1 attendees heard a wrap up on the big Madagascar confiscation by three of the primary players in that crisis, followed by a presentation from Joe Ventura (USFWS) on the increasing illegal trade in protected North American turtles, and the creative ways smugglers are using to circumvent detection. We featured two keynote addresses this year, the first by George Heinrich of the Florida Turtle Conservation Trust (The Big Turtle Year) and David Steen of the Alongside Wildlife Foundation (Using the Internet to Communicate Science), and as is tradition, we heard presentations highlighting the TSA’s global field programs. As expected, Carl Franklin (University of Texas at Arlington) gave a rousing talk regarding the “State of Texas Turtles,” which set the stage for an excellent session on Texas Turtles. Ninety-one oral presentations later, the final talks representing the year’s Special Presentations were delivered by Camila Ferrara of the Wildlife Conservation Society – Brazil and Jeffrey Lovich of the U.S. Geological Survey. Following the Special Presentations, attendees boarded charter buses on the final evening of the symposium and were whisked off to the Fort Worth Zoo, where the TSA began!

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Tint Lwin, Mimeme Soe, and Kalyar Platt (TSA/WCS-Myanmar) enjoy the cocktail reception at the MOLA. Photo: Jordan Gray

At the zoo, a cocktail reception was hosted in their award-winning Museum of Living Art (MOLA), a world-class herpetological exhibition, where guests were also given the opportunity to peruse the habitats and holding areas in an open access behind-the-scenes tour. Following the reception, the hundreds of attendees congregated under a spacious outdoor tent at the zoo’s new African Savanna for the annual banquet and presentation of awards. Presenting the first awards of the night was Rick Hudson who honored wildlife veterinarian Bonnie Raphael and TSA-Madagascar’s veterinarian Ny Aina Tiana Rakotoarisoa with the Turtle Conservation Appreciation Award for their unfaltering efforts with this year’s multi-institutional response effort for the nearly 10,000 Radiated Tortoises confiscated in Madagascar. Following these awards was the announcement of the recipients for the Turtle Conservation Fund’s annual grant awards by Hugh Quinn. Bearing fruitful news that our chelonian conservation community continues to see quality recruitment into “our population,” the number of students making up the ranks of the attendees continues to grow. This was evidenced by 31 student presentations representing 18 oral presentations and 13 posters. On behalf of the Chelonian Research Foundation in recognition of their accomplishments, Anders Rhodin awarded best poster to Carolina Starling-Manne for her work with Yellow-footed Tortoises in Brazil, best oral paper runner-up to Anuja Mital for her work along the Ganges River in India, and best oral paper to Michael Knoerr for his work with Bog Turtles in the Southern Appalachians. The banquet and awards were concluded by the presentation of the annual Behler Turtle Conservation Award, regarded as the “Nobel Prize” of the chelonian conservation community, to Russell Mittermeier of Global Wildlife Conservation for his life-long work on behalf of chelonians across the globe.

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Rick Hudson (TSA) presents Dr. Ny Aina Tiana Rakotoarisoa (TSA) with the Turtle Conservation Appreciation Award. Photo: D. Hedrick

For the 60+ attendees who found 4 days and three nights to not be quite enough, the Dallas World Aquarium and Dallas Zoo graciously hosted this year’s post-conference field trip, which included chartered buses, tours of the world-class facilities, and behind-the-scenes looks at their herpetological facilities. It was sunny and hot, but a day enjoyed by all who wanted to spend a little more time in Texas.

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Attendees mix and mingle at the “hospitality suite” held in the Hilton Fort Worth’s Presidential Suite. Photo: Zachary Walde

In all, this was a highly successful conference that again displayed the strength and commitment to global chelonian conservation. The Annual Symposium not only provides a chance for conservationists, hobbyists, breeders, researchers, academics, and educators a venue for information dissemination, but a chance to “recharge,” see old friends, and make new. The TSA and IUCN-TFTSG would like to thank all of those who attended and participated in this year’s symposium and we can’t wait to gather once again next year in Tucson!

The TSA and IUCN-TFTSG would like to thank the following organizations and individuals for their conference sponsorship and additional support: Zoo Med Laboratories, Turtle Conservancy, Chelonian Research Foundation, Advanced Telemetry Systems, Fort Worth Zoo, Desert Tortoise Council, The Surprise Spring Foundation, Dallas World Aquarium, Dallas Zoo, Kristin Berry, Andrew Brinker, John Iverson, Matt and Leigh Ann Frankel, Anders Rhodin, David Shapiro, Brett and Nancy Stearns, Reid Tayler, Tim Gregory, and Zachary Walde.

Support for the 2018 Behler Turtle Conservation award was provided by: Global Wildlife Conservation, Wildlife Conservation Society, IUCN-TFTSG, Turtle Survival Alliance, Turtle Conservancy, Turtle Conservation Fund, Andrew Sabin Family Foundation, The Surprise Spring Foundation, Chelonian Research Foundation, Deb Behler, George Meyer and Maria Semple, and Brett and Nancy Stearns.

We would like to thank the Conference Planning Committee of Andrew Walde, Cristina Jones, Rick Hudson, Jan Holloway, Jordan Gray, and Janet Fincannon.

Special thanks goes to the Hilton Fort Worth for accommodating the symposium, and to the Hilton Fort Worth, Hampton Inn & Suites, and Embassy Suites for accommodating conference attendees.

Last, but certainly not least, we would like to thank the TSA volunteer dynamic duo of Nancy Reinert and Rose Tremblay for helping to foster a sense of community and facilitate interactions and conversation in our “hospitality suite,” which was hosted in the hotel’s Presidential Suite. Considered hallowed ground by many, the Presidential Suite at the Hilton Fort Worth afforded all who entered a “moment in time, a place in history” as this hotel was the final nightly residence of President John F. Kennedy in the hours prior to his assassination in Dallas the following morning.