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Tennessee Aquarium Senior Herpetologist Bill Hughes holds seven recently hatched Four-eyed Turtles and Beal's Four-eyed Turtles. These endangered and critically endangered species can only be found natively in Southeastern China. / Photo by Casey Phillips/Tennessee Aquarium

Seven baby turtles from two endangered Southeast Asian species have recently hatched at the Tennessee Aquarium, according to an Aquarium news release.

The five four-eyed turtles and two Beal's four-eyed turtles emerged from their shells between late June and early July. Four-eyed Turtles (Sacalia quadriocellata) are found only in the streams and ponds of a remote region of extreme southeastern China, while the closely related and critically endangered Beal's four-eyed turtles (Sacalia bealei) are found in an even smaller area. Both species are named for the distinctive "eyespot" patterns on the top of their heads, the release states.

This year's batch of four-eyed turtle hatchlings is the Aquarium's second most-successful year for that species. A record group of seven hatched in 2012, but in some years the Aquarium may only hatch one or two at a time.

In 2007, the Aquarium successfully hatched a Beal's four-eyed turtle, one of only 18 Beal's that were being cared for by zoological facilities at the time. Years later, a group of five hatched there in the summer of 2015, and four more arrived in 2019. Including the 2020 pair, the Aquarium has now hatched another 18 of those turtles, doubling the 2007 count for the entire population in human care, according to the release.

(READ MORE: How the common box turtle became one of the most heavily trafficked animals in US, and how the Tennessee Aquarium is trying to fight it)

Successful hatching depends on "a steady hand and a tremendous amount of trial and error," due to the slow maturing tendency of turtles. The four-eyed turtles and Beal's species also lay eggs infrequently, which makes it difficult to determine ideal nesting conditions, says Senior Herpetologist Bill Hughes.

"You only get one clutch a year, and you don't get many eggs," Hughes said in the release. "Every year, you get one shot to get it right and then it's done until next year. That's challenging."

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Endangered turtles hatch at Tennessee Aquarium

Even Hughes' minor adjustments such as size and ambient temperature made to the turtle habitat since the first Beal's hatching could throw off an entire year's nesting season.

"I'm doing something that works. I don't want to change too many parameters and find out that I messed it up," Hughes said in the release. "There's something to be said for consistency. They're comfortable."

Hughes has his hands full but says the arrival of the baby turtles has been the silver lining of the year.

"Hatching seven of these turtles is a good thing, in general. Somehow, though, hatching seven this year, when so many other things seem to be going in the wrong direction, seems even better than normal," Hughes said in the release. "At this point, any kind of triumph, even a little tiny one, feels like a major triumph because everything else is going so badly."

Four-eyed turtles are only cared for in a handful of institutions across the country, many of which received juvenile turtles that originally hatched in Chattanooga. Beal's are only cared for by the Knoxville Zoo, which received its Beal's from the Aquarium. Sending animals to other facilities boosts the overall health of the population in human care and opens up new resources for additional breeding in the future, according to the release.

Visitors can see the new arrivals in the hatchling nursery of the recently opened Turtles of the World gallery. 

The Tennessee Aquarium has also designated 2020 as "The Year of the Turtle" to raise awareness of these amazing creatures' conservation needs. More than half of the world's 356 turtle species are in danger of extinction due to habitat loss and illegal trafficking for pets, food and medicinal use, the release states.

Find more information about four-eyed turtles at tnaqua.org/animal/four-eyed-turtle/.

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