Dogs are Helping Save Ornate Box Turtles From Extinction

Boykin spaniels aid conservationists by sniffing out endangered turtles.

Jun 4, 2021
Dogs are Helping Save Ornate Box Turtles From Extinction | Boykin spaniels aid conservationists by sniffing out endangered turtles.

Ornate box turtles live in the Illinois prairies but they're getting harder to find. That's why a group of researchers from the Chicago Zoological Society and the University of Illinois are getting some canine assistance in tracking them down.

One known home is the nearly 4,000-acre Nachusa Grasslands in Lee County, Illinois – one of the 10 counties that still have turtle habitats – where these small turtles that have distinctive shells with yellow markings are part of a health survey according to AP News.

Ornate turtles are one of  two species of box turtles in Illinois, and they typically weigh about a pound and are 3 or 4 inches (8 to 10 centimeters) long according to Dr. Matt Allender, Chicago Zoological Society clinical veterinarian and director of the University of Illinois Wildlife Epidemiology Laboratory. These endangered reptiles used to live in half of the state's 102 counties but most of their habitats are gone due to human encroachment.

Now in its 15th year, the health survey, the largest and longest running assessment in North America, is keeping track of the reptile's eyes, ears, nose, and measurements. The team of biologists and students  also draw a blood sample to check for diseases. The team uses people and a group of Boykin spaniels that can sniff out the turtle's trail.

The dogs can find two to three turtles an hour compared to one turtle every four or five hours for the researchers according to Euro News. “The dogs have been immensely beneficial in finding the turtles at a much faster rate than we can. They are a tremendous tool for conservation,” Allender, told Euro News.

The dogs – Yogi, Ruggie, Lazarus, Scamp, Skeeter, and the silver-snouted matriarch Jenny Wren – are trained to hunt and gently bring the turtles in their mouths to the researchers. “Mostly, they’re hunting for love,” John Rucker, the Boykin spaniels’ trainer told The Chicago Tribune. He explained that the dogs do not receive treats when they find the elusive turtles but are rewarded with affection after the hunt.

The collected turtles are kept in small cases and placed inside of backpacks as they travel to the lab for their checkups. The lab's motto is “saving the world one box turtle at a time,” Allender said. “The things that we do are essentially the CDC for reptiles and amphibians here in Illinois.”

After the thorough examination, the turtles are returned to where they were found. In a one-week period in early May 2021, 44 turtles were found and returned to the Nachusa Grasslands but the population numbers in the hundreds including many young.

Allender believes that what's happening with turtles' health can signal the health of the ecosystem because of the reptile's long life. “The things that they’re exposed to very much tell us what’s going on in the environment — contaminants, changes in climate, changes in pathogen load,” he said.

Keeping track of the health of the turtles and the diseases that afflict them could provide valuable information about the health of other species, including humans.

“Looking in our own backyard, looking at species that we interact with in the environment that are sentinels for our species is critical to human health,” Allender said. “If we want to stop the next pandemic, we have to look at wildlife, we have to conserve wildlife.”

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Bonnie Riva Ras has dedicated her life to promoting social justice. She loves to write about empowering women, helping children, educational innovations, and advocating for the environment & sustainability.