Researchers conduct fieldwork on state-threatened Ornate Box Turtle

Updated: May. 6, 2021 at 6:41 PM CDT
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FRANKLIN GROVE, Ill. (WIFR) - This year marks the 15th anniversary of the longest and largest-ever health survey of box turtles in North America and it’s happening right here in the Stateline. 23 News took a trip down to Lee County at the 3,800 acre Nachusa Grasslands which is one of the last remaining homes for the Ornate Box Turtle.

Matt Allender, DVM, clinical veterinarian, Chicago Zoological Society and an Assistant Professor of Veterinary Clinical Medicine and his team of veterinary students were brought to the grasslands to find as many turtles as possible. He says the species has experienced habitat destruction and a sharp population decline due to human encroachment.

He says, “Less than 1 percent of the prairie in Illinois still exists and ornate box turtles only live in the prairie. “These guys have been restricted to very small environments and habitats throughout the state. Because of that, their populations are unable to thrive. These guys are threatened.” The turtles were once found in nearly half of the state’s 102 counties, now they inhabit fewer than 10 with Lee County being one of the last remaining homes for the species.

Allender says, “From things that we can see like damage to the shell, or predator injuries or loss or habitat, but also things that we can’t see. Things like kidney and liver function, or infections with diseases, viruses and bacteria that we just can’t see.”

Their work is being made easier with the assistance of specially trained Boykin Spaniels, a dog native to the Carolinas. The dogs are owned by John Rucker who spends his time with his spaniels for turtle conservation. One of the dogs, Skeeter caught two of the six turtles caught Thursday. Rucker says, “It all started sort of accidentally back in the 1990s. My Boykins began bringing me Eastern Box Turtles and they became very good at it.”

The four-legged volunteers can snuff out two and a half turtles per hour compared to one turtle every four or five hours for a human. Ornate box turtles have a domed, dark brown top shell with short yellow lines and dashes that radiate from the center of each shell segment. “The turtles leave a very faint scent trail. and the dogs are trained to look for that scent. It’s kind of amazing when you think about it, they’re encountering all manner of scents,” Rucker says.

The “Turtle Team” tests the turtle’s immune systems, kidneys, livers and look for specific diseases such as the ranavirus. “You saw lots of students, future veterinarians, veterinarians specialists that are trying to learn and train, in order to save the world one box turtle at a time,” Allender says.

Dr. Allender’s joint position with the University of Illinois and the Chicago Zoological Society is the latest in a series of collaborative endeavors between the two institutions, which have long partnered on programs for veterinary education in zoological medicine, advanced specialist care for non-domestic animals, the acclaimed Zoological Pathology Program, and other conservation programs.

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