OKC Zoo provides data on its turtle, tortoises for new study that shows these species may experience slower signs of aging when their living conditions improve.


Oklahoma City Zoo and Botanical Garden recently contributed to a new study published in Science, a peer-reviewed academic journal. For this study, researchers used data provided by the OKC Zoo in collaboration with zoos and aquariums around the world to examine 52 species of turtles and tortoises. The data recorded by the OKC Zoo in the Species360 Zoological Information Management System (ZIMS), a digital record management system used by the Zoo, enabled researchers to discover that, unlike humans and other species, turtles and tortoises defy common evolutionary theories and may reduce the rate of aging in response to improvements in environmental conditions. Read the complete Science article here: https://www.science.org/doi/10.1126/science.abl7811

Evolutionary theories of aging predict that all living organisms deteriorate with age (a process known as senescence) – and eventually die. Now, using data collected by the OKC Zoo and others, researchers from the Species360 Conservation Science Alliance and the University of Southern Denmark show that certain animal species, such as turtles and tortoises, may exhibit slower or even absent senescence when their living conditions improve.

Out of 52 turtle and tortoise species represented in the study, 75% show extremely slow senescence, while 80% have slower senescence than modern humans.

“As a conservation organization, the OKC Zoo is committed to animal welfare and the data gathered on our animal family helps ensure our animals are well cared for and can contribute to species population management and sustainability,” said OKC Zoo’s Executive Director/CEO, Dr. Dwight Lawson. “We are proud that the data we have provided on our turtle and tortoise species has contributed to this study, and helped researchers better understand aging in these species.”

"We find that some of these species can reduce their rate of aging in response to the improved living conditions found in zoos and aquariums, compared to the wild," said study co-author, Prof. Dalia Conde, Species360 Director of Science, Head of the Species360 Conservation Science Alliance. “In addition, modern zoological organizations play an important role in conservation, education and research, and this study shows the immense value of zoos and aquariums keeping records for the advancement of science.” 

The OKC Zoo is a member of Species360, a non-profit organization which maintains the Zoological Information Management Systems (ZIMS) – the largest database on wildlife in human care. As part of OKC Zoo’s commitment to conservation and providing high standards of animal welfare, it uses ZIMS to keep detailed records of the animals in its care. OKC Zoo cares for 34 species of turtles and tortoises and actively collected and shared data in ZIMS on these species which directly contributed to this study.


Turtles keep growing after sexual maturity:

Some evolutionary theories predict that senescence appears after sexual maturity as a trade-off between the energy an individual invests in repairing damages in its cells and tissues and the energy it invests in reproduction, so its genes are passed to the next generations. This trade-off implies, among other things, that, after reaching sexual maturity, individuals stop growing and start experiencing senescence, a gradual deterioration of bodily functions with age. Theories predict that such trade-offs are unavoidable, and thus senescence is inevitable. In fact, this prediction has been confirmed for several species, particularly mammals and birds. However, organisms that keep growing after sexual maturity, such as turtles and tortoises, are believed to have the potential to keep investing in repairing cellular damages and are thus thought to be ideal candidates for reducing and even avoiding the harmful effects of aging. "It is worth noting that the fact that some species of turtle and tortoise show negligible senescence does not mean they are immortal; it only means that their risk of death does not increase with age, but it is still larger than zero. In short, all of them will eventually die due to unavoidable causes of mortality such as illness," said another of the researchers behind the study, Dr. Fernando Colchero, Principal Statistical Analyst, Species360 Conservation Science Alliance, and Associate Professor at the Department of Mathematics and Computer Science, University of Southern Denmark.


How the OKC Zoo is supporting turtle and tortoise conservation:

The OKC Zoo is a proud conservation partner of the Turtle Survival Alliance (TSA) and actively supports the organization’s goal of zero turtle extinctions. With projects in turtle hotspots around the world, including Belize, Madagascar, India, China, Bangladesh and Myanmar, the TSA is a recognized force for turtle conservation globally. Efforts are specific to the area, the local issues, and the turtle species. TSA has also established the Turtle Survival Center, a large breeding center in South Carolina. The center is home to hundreds of turtles representing 30 of the world’s most critically endangered species. TSA and the Zoo also have a special connection through, Executive Director/CEO, Dr. Dwight Lawson, who is a founding member of TSA and serves on its board.

In 2021, the OKC Zoo welcomed 11 young alligator snapping turtles to its animal family as part of a conservation head start program and partnership with U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to help increase wild populations of this vulnerable species in Oklahoma. Through this program, Zoo caretakers will continuously raise alligator snapping turtles until they age out of the head start program, and then they will be reintroduced into their native habitat.