Dogs Help Researchers Find Endangered Turtles

Dogs’ noses are so incredible. The amount of things that they can be trained to sniff out is absolutely astonishing. Drugs, explosives, cadavers, missing people, other animals…the list is extensive.

Because of this, they can even be used by conservation groups in order to help find and track endangered animals in order to gather vital data.

This seems to be the case for the ornate box turtles of the Illinois prairies.

Photo: Wikimedia Commons

These turtles happen to live out in an area that spans nearly 4,000-acre Nachusa Grasslands in Lee County, Illinois. However, they are getting much harder to locate, which is why scientists from the Chicago Zoological Society and the University of Illinois needed a little bit of help finding them.

According to AP News, in order to be able to conduct a health survey of the turtles, they turned to some canines for assistance.

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As it so happens, Lee County is only one of the 10 counties to still have ornate box turtle habitats. These little reptiles are known to be small and have distinctive shells with yellow markings. The ornate turtles are one of two species of box turtles living in Illinois.

Photo: Pixabay

According to EuroNews, Dr. Matt Allender, a Chicago Zoological Society clinical veterinarian and director of the University of Illinois Wildlife Epidemiology Laboratory, said these turtles usually only weigh a pound and measure 3-4 inches in length. While they used to be prevalent, living in half of the state’s 102 counties, most of their natural habitat has been lost to human expansion and they’re now endangered reptiles.

That is why the health survey is so important. It is the largest and longest-running assessment in North America, as it has been going for 15 years, and it keeps track of the health of turtles’ eyes, ears, and nose.

In addition, the researchers also take measurements of the animals and the team of biologists also take blood samples in order to check for diseases. But since it was so hard to find the turtles on their own, the researchers needed to bring in a group of Boykin spaniels to sniff them out.

Photo: YouTube/euronews

The dogs could easily track and locate two or three turtles within an hour as compared to the human researchers who could only manage to find one turtle every four or five hours.

As Dr. Allender said to the news outlet, “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 accomplished pups – named Yogi, Ruggie, Lazarus, Scamp, Skeeter, and Jenny Wren – were specifically trained to not just find the turtles, but also be able to gingerly pick them up in their mouths and return them to the researchers.

Photo: YouTube/euronews

As John Rucker, the Boykin spaniels’ trainer, shared with The Chicago Tribune, the dogs weren’t doing it for treats, they were doing it for affection. None of the dogs received a treat upon finding a turtle, instead, they were given praise.

All the turtles that were located were then placed into small travel cases and brought back to the labs for their medical assessments. As the lab’s motto goes, “saving the world one box turtle at a time. The things that we do are essentially the CDC for reptiles and amphibians here in Illinois.”

After receiving a full check-up, the turtles are then returned to where they were first picked up. In the week-long period that they were shown to have been able to collect 44 turtles, which were later returned to the Nachusa Grasslands.

Photo: Wikimedia Commons

Besides a general concern for the turtles’ overall health, Dr. Allender explained that there is so much that can be learned about the surrounding environment by studying the turtles’ health. As he stated, “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 added, “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. If we want to stop the next pandemic, we have to look at wildlife, we have to conserve wildlife.”

Check out these amazing turtle dogs below:

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