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Florida scientist Peter Pritchard, known as ‘the Turtle God,’ dies at 76

Named a Hero of the Planet by Time, he also had the world’s largest private collection of turtle artifacts
Dr. Peter Pritchard of Oviedo was the world's leading expert on turtles and tortoises. He displayed the world's largest collection of specimens at his Chelonian Research Institute where he gave tours to anyone for free. He died Tuesday at age 76. [Courtesy of the Chelonian Research Institute] [Chelonian Research Institute, Oviedo]

Among turtle biologists, Peter Pritchard was known as “the Turtle God.” He was to turtles and tortoises what Jane Goodall is to chimpanzees.

And in a 1920s house in the little town of Oviedo, he maintained the largest private collection of turtle and tortoise specimens in the world — more than 14,000 individual pieces from 100 different countries, hanging on every inch of the walls and lining every table and shelf.

Dr. Pritchard, 76, died Tuesday in hospice care. As to what will happen to his vast array of shells, skulls, skeletons and live creatures — a question first raised at the beginning of his illness three years ago — a spokesperson said the answer will come soon.

“A succession plan is in place and will be announced at a later time,” said Treva Marshall, speaking for Dr. Pritchard’s Chelonian Research Institute.

When Dr. Pritchard was 10, his grandparents took him to the London Zoo. He saw, for the first time, a turtle. He was thunderstruck.

"I didn't even know there were such things before," he explained years later, his British accent clipped but genial.

He began reading everything he could find about them. The more he learned, the better he liked them.

“Turtles are not trying to dominate Earth,” he once said. “They’re just trying to survive.”

When he was at Oxford University studying chemistry, he kept a tank full of turtles in his dorm. He kept meat to feed them, and he turned up his heater to maintain the proper temperature. The resulting smell guaranteed he was not a popular student.

When Dr. Pritchard decided that instead of chemistry, he should study turtles, he moved to Gainesville to learn all he could from legendary University of Florida sea turtle expert Archie Carr. He earned a Ph.D. in zoology there in 1969.

Turtles weren’t his sole focus. While working for the Florida chapter of the Audubon Society, he convened the first symposium of experts on the Florida panther, and later helped write the first recovery plan for that endangered species.

Over the course of his career he wrote more than a dozen books, including The Encyclopedia of Turtles, a standard reference among scientists, and even a children’s book, Cleopatra the Turtle Girl. He also wrote Saving What’s Left, a manual on conserving environmentally sensitive lands in Florida.

Related: Florida's Turtle God is ailing. What will happen to his collection?

His passion, though, remained collecting turtle specimens and he traveled the globe in their pursuit. He studied snake-necked turtles in New Guinea and pond turtles in Myanmar, traveling throughout Asia and Africa filming a documentary called The Turtle Planet. In 1971 he helped discover Lonesome George, the last remaining Pinta Island tortoise and an icon for Galapagos Islands conservation.

Four species of turtle are named after him — a snakeneck turtle from New Guinea, a pond turtle from northern Burma, a giant fossil sideneck turtle from Colombia and an adult male green turtle from the Archie Carr National Wildlife Refuge in Florida

In 1998, on 15 acres in Oviedo, he opened the Chelonian Research Institute, named for the scientific order that covers turtles, tortoises and terrapins. He filled it with his still-growing collection, and opened the doors to scientists and laymen alike, free of charge. He’d give personal tours to Girl Scout troops, government officials and celebrities.

The lanky, 6-foot-4 scientist met his petite wife Sibille, a journalist, at a party in Guyana, where he was researching that country’s turtles. She had no interest in his favorite subject, but she found him fascinating. After all, how many men keep turtles and crocodiles in a bathtub, or dodged death in a sinking boat in the Galapagos?

“For 50 years, Peter has been my partner, my strength and my soulmate,” she said. “Together, we’ve had an amazing journey.”

___________________________

Dr. Peter Pritchard

Born: June 26, 1943

Died: Feb. 25, 2020

Survivors: Wife, Sibille; two adult sons, Sebastian and Cameron. Preceded in death by son Dominic.

Services: Not scheduled yet.

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