Veterinarians, veterinary students, and a special pack of Boykin Spaniels work to conserve wild turtles
The dogs didn’t find a single turtle for the first hour of the hike, but they didn’t give up.
A team of veterinarians, veterinary students, five dogs, and the dogs’ owner slowly wound up and down ravines in a forested park hidden away among the corn and soybeans of central Illinois. The expedition’s leader, Dr. Matt Allender, noted when the group reached what he called the magic field—which turned out to be a field of thorns but not of Eastern box turtles that day.
Eastern box turtles have a conservation status of vulnerable and could disappear from the edge of their range in Illinois. Dr. Allender is a Chicago Zoological Society clinical veterinarian and director of the Wildlife Epidemiology Laboratory at the University of Illinois, which describes diseases of reptiles and amphibians in the wild as part of collaborative efforts to help preserve species.
The project to study box turtles is the largest and longest health study in this animal anywhere in the world, so far having collected samples from more than 4,000 turtles. The project started in Tennessee in 2007 and is in its 11th year in neighboring Illinois, focusing in central Illinois on Eastern box turtles and in northern Illinois on ornate box turtles—which are threatened in the state. Specially trained Boykin Spaniels locate the small turtles by scent and then carry them by mouth back to the rest of the turtle team, which returns them to their original habitat immediately after they are worked up.
While studying these turtles, Dr. Allender said, “We’re developing new techniques, and we’re setting the standard. We’ve identified new viruses and new bacteria, and we characterize the epidemiology of all the things that we find.” He likened the project to being the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention for turtle health in North America.
These box turtles are sentinels of ecosystem health, Dr. Allender added. The project has found human health concerns in samples from the turtles, such as the presence of Salmonella and evidence of heavy metals.
After the magic field, back in the trees, one of the dogs finally found the first turtle out of what would be a total of nine that day. The dogs wagged their tails, and the rest of the turtle team smiled.
The veterinary students labeled the turtle with a loop of masking tape around the shell, tucked the animal into a washable individualized container labeled “A,” and put the container in a backpack labeled “A-D” for the first four turtles. The students marked the location with a strip of orange tape on a tree and took down the GPS coordinates to later return the turtle. The expedition continued on.
This unique method for finding the turtles came about by chance.
John Rucker was a high school English teacher in North Carolina, and he owned some Boykin Spaniels. They started bringing him box turtles. So he formed a student turtle club and took students out to find turtles.
Word got out, and he began receiving requests from universities to have his dogs locate box turtles for research projects. Eventually, he quit teaching and devoted himself to his turtle dogs.
Now 74, Rucker doesn’t know anybody else who would put up with his lifestyle. He lives off the grid in Montana, but he spends much of his time driving across the country and staying in tents or parking lots. He has outfitted his truck with a homemade air conditioner powered by a generator so he can keep his dogs cool even if his truck breaks down.
Dr. Allender said, “These dogs make conservation of these turtles possible.”
The project to study box turtles in Illinois and Tennessee started by testing specifically for ranavirus, which causes die-offs of box turtles and amphibians, and the project grew organically. Dr. Allender said the ability to do health assessments of box turtles keeps growing.
Funding for the project comes from a number of sources, including the Illinois Department of Natural Resources. All work is performed with appropriate permits and with approvals from the University of Illinois Institutional Animal Care and Use Committee.
Dr. Laura Adamovicz, the other veterinarian in the field that day, is a research scientist with the Wildlife Epidemiology Laboratory. She earned her doctorate with the laboratory developing statistical models to predict individual and population health in Eastern box turtles, ornate box turtles, and silvery salamanders in Illinois. The project to study box turtles has provided samples for several other of her research projects and for student research projects.
In addition to disease, Dr. Adamovicz said, the project looks at other threats to the health of box turtles, including trauma from cars or predators.
Veterinary students Carly Clark and Maris Daleo were team leaders for the summer. They helped organize and train the student volunteers, including teaching clinical and laboratory skills. They were involved in fieldwork preparations, data management, and sample processing.
“But our main focus is truly getting the student volunteers excited about the project and making sure they are learning as much as possible along the way,” Clark said.
In the field
Not long after the dogs found the first turtle, a female, they found another, a male. The veterinary student carrying the first two turtles in a backpack actually found the third turtle, another female.
The dogs wagged their tails excitedly when they were on the scent. In fields, the grass was taller than the dogs, but the grasses waved in lines as the dogs went back and forth.
Next, the dogs found a juvenile turtle, sex not possible to determine in the field.
“We want a roughly even sex ratio,” Dr. Adamovicz said. “We always get excited about babies because that means they’re breeding.”
Soon the dogs found another turtle and yet another. Then they took a swimming break.
After more hiking through ravines, the dogs found three more turtles before the team got back to the parking lot, having hiked up and down in a loop for 2 1/2 hours but having covered only 2 1/2 miles horizontally.
Rucker said he gives voice commands to the dogs, but they also think for themselves. At the end of this day, the dogs mostly were working on their own—all business.
The team mobilized quickly in the parking lot to minimize the time that the turtles were away from their habitat. The veterinarians and veterinary students previously had set up several stations on folding tables under a pop-up canopy.
The team swabbed the turtles’ shells to collect samples to test for a disease caused by the newly discovered fungus Emydomyces testavorans, which has been found in endangered Blanding’s turtles. The next step was to draw a blood sample and record demographic information such as weight.
Then the turtles had a complete physical examination, looking at everything from the color of the mucous membranes in their mouths to the condition of their shells to any evidence of diarrhea or discharge.
In all, the project looks at 32 pathogens that can cause disease. The health of the turtles varies by site and by year. The project uses information from the 4,000 turtles—and counting—to establish reference ranges for test results.
“Here in Vermilion County, a lot of turtles are on the edge of poor health,” Dr. Allender said, as a result of habitat quality and genetics. Over half of the turtles have multidrug-resistant bacteria. Despite all this, there is evidence of reproduction.
After the physical examination, the next step was to listen to each turtle’s heart with a Doppler ultrasound probe. Last, Dr. Allender and the team took measurements and photos of each turtle’s shell. He identified the turtles that had been collected before by the pattern of notches in the 24 scutes around the edge of the carapace, and he added notches to the carapaces of the new turtles.
The project description on the Wildlife Epidemiology Laboratory’s website also characterizes box turtles as sentinels of ecosystem health. According to the description, “Box turtles are long-lived, inhabit both aquatic and terrestrial habitats, and have relatively small home ranges making them a suitable candidate as a sentinel.”
Dr. Allender said much of veterinary medicine historically has been reactionary, including wildlife medicine. After a die-off of hundreds of turtles, veterinarians would describe what happened. A goal of his laboratory is to identify drivers of good health in wildlife and support those as preventive medicine.
Clark, the student co-leader, said prospective health studies such as the turtle project are a valuable tool for wildlife conservation.
“By collecting serial health data on these box turtle populations, we are able to monitor how different pressures, including disease and habitat alteration, affect the overall health of the population,” Clark said.
Dr. Allender emphasized that the conservation project also serves as a training project for the next generation of veterinarians. Along with the turtle side, the students get a chance to work with working dogs.
Dr. Adamovicz said there are no other learning opportunities quite like the project at other veterinary colleges. The students learn practical skills, develop abilities to work in groups and lead, conduct independent research, and get hands-on experience in wildlife epidemiology.
After the turtle workup in the parking lot, most of the team headed back to the veterinary college to spend the afternoon on diagnostics. Dr. Allender and a few veterinary students hit the trail again to retrace the loop route through the ravines and return each of the nine turtles to the exact location where it was found.
And this was just Monday. The team went out again for the next three days to other sites, finding 20 turtles on Tuesday, 19 on Wednesday, and two on Thursday—for a total of 50 turtles.
It was a good week. And it was a good year. By the last day on Aug. 7, the grand total was 493 turtles.
Dr. Adamovicz said, “This work has generated a tremendous amount of data that is useful for understanding box turtle health and creating focused conservation strategies for these animals and the ecosystems in which they live.”
Check out an online photo gallery of images captured from a day this summer with the University of Illinois Wildlife Epidemiology Laboratory’s turtle team working to find wild box turtles via trained Boykin Spaniels for population health assessments.
A version of this article appears in the October 2022 print issue of JAVMA.