They show up in rubber boots and load their backpacks with gear: GPS units, latex gloves and data collection notebooks. The other equipment–calipers, syringes, scales and folding tables–will be used later when the students bring turtles here to their temporary laboratory alongside a park road.
The dogs, half a dozen Boykin spaniels, whine with excitement. The dogs’ owner, John Rucker, discovered their special talent for turtle hunting when one of them brought him a box turtle it had found in the woods. He praised the dog, and that was the beginning of a new vocation. Turtle scientists, like today’s expedition leader, Matt Allender, learned of Rucker’s “turtle dogs” and started to call to ask for help locating their subjects.
“The dogs just live to find turtles,” says Allender, a U. of I. alumnus and professor of comparative biosciences at the College of
Veterinary Medicine. “They are a wonderful aid to box turtle conservation because they can find so many turtles.”
The team crosses a park road with the dogs on leashes and heads straight up a steep hill. At the top, the dogs go off leash in the muddy woods, and the real work begins. The dogs lead the search and the humans follow.
“Keep your head down,” Allender says to the 15 students tromping through the brush behind the dogs. “Dogs find live turtles, and
I would like to also find shells that may be evidence of a recent die-off.”
Allender and the students are learning how to assess turtle health. They also are looking for ways to halt the spread of diseases like ranavirus, which killed nearly two dozen turtles from two parks surveyed last year.
Kayla Boers, a 22-year-old, second-year student from Oswego, Illinois, is studying whether the dogs – which aren’t susceptible
to ranavirus – might transfer the virus from turtle to turtle.
“It’s unlikely, but we’re checking,” she says. She swabbed the dogs’ mouths before the hunt, and does so again after every turtle is found. Back in the laboratory, she and her colleagues will check the swabs for ranavirus DNA.
After about an hour in the woods, the dogs locate their first turtle, one of four to be found this day. Looking extremely satisfied, the dog sits for a photo with the turtle. Allender and the students inspect the turtle and pack it for travel. A student takes a GPS
reading so that the turtle can be brought back to this exact site after a full health check is done.
“We now have health data on over 1,000 of 2,500 box turtles found since the project began eight years ago,” Allender says. “This makes it the biggest box turtle health project ever.”
The effort has spawned many student research projects. Third-year veterinary student Claire Butkus, 25, from Glen Ellyn, Illinois, is learning how to extract DNA from the shells of dead turtles to determine whether they were infected with a ranavirus or other pathogen. Other students explore whether proteins in the turtles’ blood can be used as markers of health or disease. Others help analyze the animals’ exposure to metals like zinc and lead.
Marta Rzadkowska, 22, from Cary, Illinois, also conducts research on turtle DNA. She graduated from the U. of I. this year and will
begin her veterinary training this fall.
“I’m amazed at how significant this little hike can be,” Rzadkowska says. “The few hours that we spend out here just give us so much data. It is a small group of us, but it has huge applications to conservation efforts around the country.”