Coming Soon: Turtle Oasis

The Zoo has broken ground on a brand-new habitat that puts its conservation efforts front and center.

1. What’s coming?

Turtle Oasis is a science- and conservation-based outdoor habitat, focusing on the rescue, care and research of freshwater turtles that need our help. It will be nationally recognized the Association of Zoos and Aquariums as part of the Virginia Zoo’s ongoing conservation efforts and an official AZA SAFE (Saving Animals From Extinction) Program.

2. What is a SAFE program?

AZA SAFE focuses the collective expertise within AZA-accredited zoos and aquariums and leverages that visitor audience, which is more than 200 million strong, to help save animal species that need immediate attention. Since the SAFE program’s inception, nearly 30 species have been identified as part of this initiative and institutions work together alongside their partners to help save these animals. Turtle Oasis will provide conservation education – making visitors aware of these turtle species, which live in unique and shrinking freshwater wetland habitats, and how protecting wild habitats benefits us all.

3. What will happen here?

Turtle Oasis focuses on the rescue, care, study, and, if necessary, rehabilitation of US Fish and Wildlife confiscated bog and spotted turtles. Additional species may also benefit if the habitats appear suitable.   These species are endangered due to habitat loss and the pet trade (it is illegal for private individuals to maintain either of these species). Visitors will be able to see these unique species on a pier that extends over pond and stream water systems.

4. Who are the inhabitants?

Bog turtles and spotted turtles are just two of the many species that will benefit from Turtle Oasis. Both bog and spotted turtles are similar in appearance. The bog turtle is the smallest species of turtle in North America, weighing about 3.9 ounces on average. Its skin and shell are typically dark brown, with a distinctive orange spot on each side of the neck. The spotted turtle grows to 1.4 – 4.9 inches in length and is grayish black with small yellow spots.

5. Where can we find it?

Turtle Oasis involves the renovation of the Zoo’s historical sea lion exhibit which opened in 1954. The exhibit was very popular with visitors until the early 1990s when the last sea lion passed away and the area was closed. The site is located just past the Zoo’s main pond, and across from Run Wild: Nature Discovery Zone.

6. Why this location?

The historical sea lion pool is the perfect foundation to create another in-ground system of pools – “up cycling” what features were already present. Preparation for this project involved a geotechnical investigation to determine soil type, stability of the present structures, and substrates. The area was found to be suitable for backfilling to create the proper water depths for natural ponds and wetlands to suit each turtle space.

7. What will the habitat look like?

A “U” shaped visitor pier will be built over the pools and streams, boulders and rocks will create natural barriers between eight freshwater habitats.  Aquatic and land vegetation will be added to soften the habitats and make them more turtle friendly.  The pools and bogs are low-maintenance and more importantly, low-waste, built with eco-friendly and long-lasting materials to ensure a long lifespan.  The habitats will also include soft soil and mud areas so that the turtles will be able to hibernate during the winter season.

Arial rendering of the pools, streams and u-shaped pier

8. What about the flora?

A major overhaul of the landscaping and treescape will also take place. Undyed, hardwood mulch will create a natural appearance and more than 60 plants of nearly a dozen species will embellish the tranquil space. Some plants will include Creeping Jenny, Nancy Revenge Elephant Ear, Autumn Joy Sedum, St John’s Wort and Big Blue Salvia.

9. When can we visit Turtle Oasis?

We have already began conctruction! Privacy fences will be in place due to the nature of the construction, but we will be posting regular updates to our social media and plan to open Turtle Oasis later this summer. You can also check out construction progress here.

10. Support the project

This project includes partnerships with the US Fish and Wildlife, Virginia Wesleyan University, freshwater bog and wetland experts, and turtle scientists from the Turtle Survival Alliance. If you are as big a turtle fan as we are, you can help support the project by donating to Act For Wildlife.