Illinois researchers working to save ornate box turtles

FRANKLIN GROVE (AP) – A team of Illinois researchers is using dogs to track down a threatened species of turtle. Researchers believe ornate box turtles, once living in half of Illinois’ 102 counties, are found in less than 10.

One known home for the species is in Lee County, and a team from the Chicago Zoological Society and the University of Illinois spent Friday surveying the 1,500-hectare Nachusa Grasslands.

A team paced through the grasses trying to spot the small turtles, aided by a group of Boykin spaniels that can sniff out the turtles’ trail. When a human or a dog located a turtle, researchers made notes about the reptile’s eyes, ears, nose and took physical measurements along with a blood sample.

Ornate box turtles’ shells have distinct yellow markings in a sunburst pattern. They typically weigh about a pound and are eight to 10 centimetres in length said Director of the University of Illinois Wildlife Epidemiology Laboratory Dr Matt Allender.

The health study is in its 15th year. The data collected during Friday’s survey will be added to previous years’ findings to help researchers determine what is threatening the environment and health of the ornate box turtles. “Ornate box turtles are sentinels of environmental and ecosystem health, so they utilise both land and water sources, just like humans do in this environment,” Allender said. “And so the health of the ornate box turtle is a reflection of the health of the environment that we draw our natural resources on.”

Boykin spaniels lead the search for ornate box turtles with Matt Allender. PHOTOS: AP
An ornate box turtle
Dog handler John Rucker collects an ornate box turtle that one of his Boykin spaniels located and brought to him