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Dogs helping scientists assess health of threatened ornate box turtles

Posted at 7:30 AM, May 23, 2022

FRANKLIN, Ill. — For nearly 50 years, the ornate box turtle has been endangered or threatened. Highly sought after as pets, they're even poached and traded on the black market.

Conservationists are enlisting the unique help of man's best friend to try and save the turtles.

John Rucker's Boykin spaniels have a nose for something unique. They aren't searching for a lost person or helping solve crimes. They're on the hunt for ornate box turtles.

The turtle-sniffing dogs are assisting a team of researchers on an expedition.

“If the turtles aren't moving, the dogs won't find them,” said Dr. Matt Allender, Chicago Zoological Society clinical veterinarian and director of the University of Illinois Wildlife Epidemiology Laboratory

“And it's likely tied to their urine as they're depositing that trail. A dog has to just come in to cross that pattern. They'll stop and then they'll follow that trail until they find that turtle.”

Habitat loss, road collisions and the pet trade have all contributed to shrinking populations of ornate box turtles.

“We've converted most of their prairie land into crops and agriculture,” he said. “There's obviously good reasons for that as well, but that's how we end up in this situation.”

Over the years the Nature Conservancy began to acquire space like the 4,000-acre Nachusa Grasslands Preserve to help restore habitat and build back populations.

“We actually have 25 threatened and endangered species at the state or federal level that use the habitat here at Nachusa grasslands,” said Elizabeth Bach, a research scientist at the Nature Conservancy Illinois.

On this day, Dr. Allender and his team of veterinary researchers are collecting these specimens to get a sense of how well they’re doing.

Scientists say protecting biodiversity and these turtles have a wider ecological impact because they are sentinels of the habitat. Changes in their health can indicate changes in the ecosystem.

Each time a dog finds a turtle, it’s methodically documented.

“We've developed the strategy that as soon as a turtle is found, we mark it with a GPS location and then we tie kind of what we call flagging tape. It's a bright orange tape, so that's easy for us to find,” said Allender.

That’s important because the turtles have an intensely strong connection to their homes. If they’re not returned, they search 25 times longer and travel 25 times farther to find home.

“Then they're intersecting with a lot more roads, a lot more predators,” he said.

One predator is humans.

“So poaching is one of the top two threats to the species. Habitat loss and poaching,” said Bach.

The turtles remain protected in Colorado, Iowa, Indiana, Nebraska, Kansas and Wisconsin.

The state of Kansas is considering legislation that would ban people from capturing or possessing them.

“These turtles are highly coveted in kind of the black market pet trade and it's a major concern,” said Bach. “Understanding things like potential parasite loads or threats from predators helps us understand how they're interacting with the ecosystem.”

The field health assessments include taking measurements and blood samples and even checking their heart rates.

“If we have a range of sick and healthy turtles, then we know that there are pockets of sick and healthy areas of the ecosystem,” said Allender.

And with the help of the enthusiastic canines, the hope is that these unique reptiles and their natural habitats will flourish for years to come.