Turtle and Tortoise Newsletter, 2000, 1:22
© 2000 by Chelonian Research Foundation

Turtle and Tortoise Newsletter

The Chelonian Research Institute, A New Systematics Resource

Peter C.H. Pritchard
Chelonian Research Institute, 401 South Central Ave., Oviedo, Florida 32765 USA

The Chelonian Research Institute was formally founded in early 1998, when the Institute property and buildings were purchased with a grant from the Chelonia Institute of Arlington, Virginia. The site consists of about ten acres in Oviedo, Florida, with a two-story converted residential building, built in 1930 and completely renovated for office use in the early 1990s, and a single-story redecorated residential structure built in 1950. The grounds are largely wilderness, apart from a old orange grove (reminiscent of the “Orangerie” of academic and formal European gardens of the eighteenth century), and they harbor a thriving population of gopher tortoises and occasional Florida box turtles. Adjacent property is also undeveloped and forested despite the proximity to downtown Oviedo.

The intention has been to recapture the atmosphere and the spirit of enquiry of private academic institutions and universities of the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries. To this end, the facility offers a “user-friendly” atmosphere, with wilderness trails for unhurried contemplation, a commitment to the art of conversation, an art collection that documents attempts to portray or project the image of chelonian form over the last two and a half centuries, a thoroughgoing library with excellent collections of books, reprints, and videotapes, and the turtle collections themselves.

The specimen collections were accumulated by the author over the course of nearly forty years. Specimens were obtained both in the course of travel to about ninety countries and territories, and from numerous widely-distributed colleagues and contacts who have made either individual or repeated donations. One of the main purposes of the Institute is to serve as a demonstration project illustrating the potential for assembling a comprehensive, even exhaustive, collection if one’s terms of reference are narrower than “the entire creation.” While public natural history museums, whose highest-profile function is the provision of exhibits for the education of the general public, are generally not able to specialize (except possibly for some degree of regional emphasis), a non-governmental institute is free of such constraints and, with no obligation to feature beetles, whales, or anything other than chelonians, is in a position to offer an unrivaled collection of the chosen group.

The collections of the Institute include representation of all of the 91 recognized extant turtle genera, and 264 full species. In all, there are slightly over 6,000 specimens. By way of historical contrast, the British Museum included 1371 turtle specimens in 1873, listed by J. E. Gray as representative of 197 species. But reclassification by G. A. Boulenger in 1889 synonymized many of them, so that even with the addition of nearly 300 new specimens in this 16 year interval the number of species in the collection was reduced to 176. Today, the Carnegie Museum (Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania) has the largest turtle collection in existence (about 25,000 specimens), but in terms of variety, few if any public collections have more than 200 turtle species even today.

The Chelonian Research Institute collection is dynamic, and every year many new specimens and a few new taxa are added. While not including type specimens, many newly-described taxa are represented in the Institute’s collection within a year or two or their original description. All specimens were obtained by salvage, from natural or captive mortalities, or from specimens killed by turtle hunters or fishermen. The collection is especially strong in marine turtles, with large series of hatchlings and adult skulls of all eight extant species. It is also strong in chelonians of Florida, Guyana, southeast Asia, and Australia and New Guinea. No area of the world or individual family of turtles is seriously under-represented, but within the United States, representation of taxa from the northern and western states is relatively weak.

About fifty percent of the medium-sized and larger species in the collection are in the form of skeletons, generally with shells (carapace and plastron) and skulls intact and complete, and with the remaining bony elements conserved in unarticulated form. This is in contrast to most collections of Recent turtle taxa, in which the majority of specimens are usually liquid-preserved. The collection is thus especially valuable to paleontologists who wish to make comparisons between the fossilized shells or bones of extinct forms and the corresponding parts of living species.

The Institute also houses a modest collection of living tortoises and turtles, ranging from local box turtles to Aldabra and Galapagos tortoises, and with a herd of alligator snapping turtles some of which have been in captivity since the mid-1960’s. The exhibits include various displays of interest to the public. They concentrate upon shells and skeletons of specimens of unusual size, and include some dramatic mounts of articulated skeletons of huge softshells (Amyda and Chitra) as well as carapaces of Galapagos tortoises and astonishingly large alligator snapper and green turtle specimens. A recurring theme of the exhibits is an attempt to associate antique artistic renderings and engravings with actual specimens of the species depicted.

The policy of the Institute is to make the collections available to all responsible interested parties, whether professional, amateur, or student. A limited amount of overnight accommodation and kitchen facilities are available to users of the collection, although arrangements for this need to be made in advance. Short-term (three month) loans of material can also be made, but those needing to examine very large specimens - or very large numbers of specimens - are encouraged to make personal visits. Both casual visitors and potential users of the collection should make contact with the author at the above address, phone (407) 365-6347, or fax(407) 977-5142.