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Turtle Dogs to the Rescue in Illinois Fieldwork Study

Posted By : The Animal Facts Editorial Team

Date: May 10, 2021 1:30 am

Brookfield Zoo Turtle Dogs

 A Boykin spaniel with an ornate box turtle in its mouth waits to hand it over John Rucker, owner of the “turtle dogs.” The four-legged volunteers can sniff out 2.5 turtles per search hour, compared to the one turtle every four or five hours for a biologist.

Photo Credit: Cathy Bazzoni/CZS-Brookfield Zoo

Researchers from the Chicago Zoological Society and University of Illinois have called in the "turtle dogs" to help with conservation work for the Ornate box turtle, a threatened species in Illinois.

Ornate box turtles have decreased due to habitat destruction and human encroachment. Once found in half of the 102 counties of Illinois they are now found in under 10 of them. This study has been working for 15 years on the longest and largest health survey for box turtles in North America.

Brookfield Zoo Turtle Dogs

An ornate box turtle being weighed during a health examination. The species is threatened in the state of Illinois.

Photo Credit: Cathy Bazzoni/CZS-Brookfield Zoo

Researchers have been able to accelerate their research with the help of some four-legged friends known as the "turtle dogs." This group of Boykin spaniels owned by John Rucker work to find the turtles for researchers.

“We are extremely grateful to have connected with John and his dogs,” said Dr. Matt Allender, Chicago Zoological Society clinical veterinarian and director of the University of Illinois Wildlife Epidemiology Laboratory.

“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.”

The four-legged volunteers can sniff out 2.5 turtles per search hour, compared to the one turtle every four or five hours for a biologist.

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Once the "turtle dogs" have sniffed out a turtle they will begin their research. “This week, we conducted 44 complete turtle examinations, including collecting blood samples, swabbing the mouth, measuring height and length, evaluating weight and body condition, and taking an overall visual analysis of each turtle’s shell, eyes, nose, throat, and legs. This data not only provides a baseline for future studies of box turtle health, but also helps evaluate the health of the ecosystem,” said Allender.

Box turtles are seen as indicator species of the health of their habitat as they live both on land and in water. Information gained during the study of these turtles can also assist researchers to help humans.

When studying the turtles they are also tested for anemia, immune status, kidney and liver function and specific diseases.

“Some of our findings are disheartening when we discover that habitat destruction and degradation are clearly causing sickness and death to the turtle population over time,” said Allender. “However, we’ve also seen encouraging aspects. When habitats are restored, if turtles have survived in that region they are tough and often come out strong.”

Brookfield Zoo Turtle Dogs

Kylie Ayers, a fourth-year veterinary student in the College of Veterinary Medicine at the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign, draws blood from an ornate box turtle during a health assessment conducted on the species at Nachusa Grasslands the first week of May.

Photo Credit: Cathy Bazzoni/CZS-Brookfield Zoo

Researchers are able to track turtles across the years as they can live in to their late 50s. Each year as many as 70% of the turtles caught may have been previously evaluated. This can allow them to understand how the health of the population is changing over time.

Ornate box turtles are one of two terrestrial turtles seen on the Great Plains of the United States. Since this study began date has been collected on 500 ornate box turtles.

Brookfield Zoo housed two ornate box turtles which were confiscated in 2010 at a pet store by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS). In 2015 they worked with the USFWS to hatch seven ornate box turtles which were released in the Upper Mississippi National Wildlife and Fish Refuge in Savannah, Illinois.

Brookfield Zoo Turtle Dogs

Boykin spaniels search for ornate box turtles at Illinois’ Nachusa Grasslands. Dr. Matt Allender (wearing the green hat), Chicago Zoological Society clinical veterinarian and director of the University of Illinois Wildlife Epidemiology Laboratory, and his team of students and veterinarians follow behind. During the first week of May, the team conducted health assessments on 44 ornate box turtles, a threatened species in Illinois.

Photo Credit: Cathy Bazzoni/CZS-Brookfield Zoo

Learn more about Tortoises here – Tortoise Fact File | The Animal Facts

Learn more about the Brookfield Zoo on their website – Brookfield Zoo

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