“Turtle Dogs” Assist UI Researcher

“Turtle Dogs” Assist UI Researcher

My name is Dr. Matt Allender, and I’m a
wildlife veterinarian and visiting instructor here at the College of Veterinary Medicine. We’re trying to save the world, one box
turtle at a time. We’re trying to do that by monitoring the health and diseases that
are in box turtles around the United States. So we are going out with Biologists and we
are looking at the populations of box turtles through height, weight, length, we’re also
collecting blood samples, so I’m looking at the eyes, the nose, the throat, looking
at the legs, and looking at the shell. The turtle dogs are Boykin spaniels, and the dogs
just live to find turtles. The days they don’t find turtles, they get a little depressed,
a little sad. They are a wonderful mechanism to help turtle conservation because they can
find so many animals. We can be out with 16 individual humans, out looking for turtles,
and at most find 1 turtle for every 4 or 5 search hours. Whereas with the dogs, they
can find 2 ? turtles per search hour of dogs, so it’s just remarkable what they can find.
The dogs work in a coordinated pattern to find turtles at an incredible rate. They are
owned by a wonderful individual named John Rucker. John: Well, I was living in the mountains
of east Tennessee, where there are a lot of box turtles, eastern box turtles, and I had
one boykin spaniel at the time, he had sort of a mystical, interesting personality, and
one day he just started bringing me box turtles, and I praised him, I didn’t encourage him,
but I praised him, he comprehended that I was interested in them, so he took it upon
himself to find more, and more, and more, and he became absolutely obsessed with it.
And then I got another dog, and he started doing the same thing, gradually, word of mouth
got around, and I started getting some requests from researchers to go and catch turtles for
them. Matt: We’re testing for infection, through
white blood cell count, we’re looking for anemia, we’re looking for the immune response
through antibodies. We are also looking at kidney and liver function, and electrolytes.
We’re looking at specific diseases like Rhinovirus, which causes mortality events
and outbreaks across the United States in both amphibians and mammals. Box Turtles specifically
are a really good indicator of our environmental health. They are ectothermic animals, so that
they rely on everything in their environment for growth, and reproduction, and nutrition.
They are long lived animals. So we can look at their health over many decades of time.
And then they have relatively small home ranges. So their home range, their health is directly
related to the health of that area. So if we look at animals in Vermillion County, we
can get a direct result of the health in Vermillion County. John: A lot of people, including myself, are
fascinated by the architecture of their shell. They can completely close up and go inside,
it’s quite an amazing strategy, to live slow, die slow, and whatever danger, just
go inside your house and close the door and wait until the danger goes away. Turtles are
just fascinating, so I’m out here to help as much as I can, we’re trying to learn
all we can, try to hold all the turtle diseases at bay until we can learn more about them. Matt: We started analyzing all the samples,
and all the values we’ve gotten so far appear to be similar to other turtles in Illinois
and in Tennessee. There’s still a lot more to do, we only have a small portion, but this
will be crucial data to establish the health of this population. We need to look at this
for the next 10 years. We can say that this turtle population is healthy, the environment
is healthy, or it’s not, and we can make improvements that are better for the turtle
and better for people.

Randy Schultz

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