News Release
 
Contact: Sondra Katzen, 708.688.8351, 708.903.2071 (cell), sondra.katzen@czs.org
               Chris Beuoy, University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, 217.244.1562, beuoy@illinois.edu
 
May 7, 2021
 
FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE

Note: To download images, scroll to end of press release.
 
Chicago Zoological Society and University of Illinois Researchers
Conduct Fieldwork on State-threatened Ornate Box Turtle
The longest and largest-ever study of its kind marks 15th year of crucial conservation work
 

Brookfield, Ill. – This year marks the 15th anniversary of the longest and largest-ever health survey of box turtles in North America, and it’s happening in Illinois’ backyard. The study furthers conservation efforts to save the state-threatened ornate box turtle (one of two species of box turtles in Illinois), which has experienced habitat destruction and sharp population decline due to human encroachment.

Once found in nearly half of the state’s 102 counties, the ornate box turtle now inhabits fewer than 10, researchers believe. Lee County, including the 3,800-acre Nachusa Grasslands, is one of the last remaining homes for the species. This is where, during the first week of May, Dr. Matt Allender, Chicago Zoological Society clinical veterinarian and director of the University of Illinois Wildlife Epidemiology Laboratory, and his team of veterinary students trekked to find as many ornate box turtles as possible.

Their work was made much easier with the help of specially trained Boykin spaniels, fondly called “turtle dogs.” The dogs are owned by John Rucker, who spends his time with his spaniels for turtle conservation.

“We are extremely grateful to have connected with John and his dogs,” said Allender. “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 four-legged volunteers can sniff out 2.5 turtles per search hour, compared to the one turtle every four or five hours for a biologist.

Once the dogs located and retrieved the turtles, the researchers began their health assessments on the 4- to 5-inch-long terrapins. Ornate box turtles have a domed, dark brown carapace (top shell). Short yellow lines and dashes radiate from the center of each shell segment.

“This week, we conducted 44 complete turtle examinations, including collecting blood samples, swabbing the mouth, measuring height and length, evaluating weight and body condition, and taking an overall visual analysis of each turtle’s shell, eyes, nose, throat, and legs. This data not only provides a baseline for future studies of box turtle health, but also helps evaluate the health of the ecosystem,” said Allender.

Because turtles—like people—utilize both terrestrial and aquatic habitats, are long-lived, and have a relatively small home range, the health of a box turtle is very much a reflection of the condition of the environment and its natural resources. Using box turtles as sentinels not only helps save box turtles, but provides information that helps protect the health of many other species, including people.

Allender and his “Turtle Team” test the turtles for anemia, immune status, electrolytes, kidney and liver function, and specific diseases, such as ranavirus, an infectious agent that can cause outbreaks and death in a variety of reptile species across the U.S.

Depending on the site, as in the instance at Nachusa Grasslands, biologists collect data on previously caught turtles. The species can live into their mid- to late-50s, so up to 70 percent of the turtles in a given year may have been previously evaluated. This continuity helps researchers understand how health indicators change over time. In order to keep track of each turtle, the shell is notched by cutting small pieces from sections along the outer edge, giving a unique identification. The notches do not harm the animals.

The ornate box turtle is one of only two terrestrial species of turtles native to the Great Plains in the United States. The other is the eastern box turtle, a species that Allender and his team also study throughout the state. Since the project began in 2006, data has been collected on approximately 500 ornate box turtles and 3,500 eastern box turtles throughout Illinois and Tennessee.

In 2009, the ornate box turtle was listed as a threatened species in Illinois for several reasons, including habitat loss due to agriculture and development, mortality from vehicle strikes, and over-collection for the pet trade. In Illinois, it is illegal to own an ornate box turtle without a permit. Brookfield Zoo acquired two female turtles in 2010 after they were confiscated at a pet store in the northwest suburbs by U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS) officials. Additionally, in 2015, the CZS partnered with USFWS by hatching seven ornate box turtles. To give the turtles a chance to grow in size and strength, they stayed at Brookfield Zoo for several months before being released in the Upper Mississippi National Wildlife and Fish Refuge in Savannah, Illinois.

The past 15 years’ worth of data has cultivated stronger conservation for ornate box turtles in the state and Midwest region as researchers discover brand new viruses and vulnerabilities in the species’ population. The work has also informed state legislation, providing turtle health data as evidence to ban turtle races across Illinois for their significant negative effects on the animals.
 
“Some of our findings are disheartening when we discover that habitat destruction and degradation are clearly causing sickness and death to the turtle population over time,” said Allender. “However, we’ve also seen encouraging aspects. When habitats are restored, if turtles have survived in that region they are tough and often come out strong.”

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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Photo Captions (credit Cathy Bazzoni/CZS-Brookfield Zoo)
0176: Boykin spaniels search for ornate box turtles at Illinois’ Nachusa Grasslands. Dr. Matt Allender (wearing the green hat), Chicago Zoological Society clinical veterinarian and director of the University of Illinois Wildlife Epidemiology Laboratory, and his team of students and veterinarians follow behind. During the first week of May, the team conducted health assessments on 44 ornate box turtles, a threatened species in Illinois.
 
0211: A Boykin spaniel with an ornate box turtle in its mouth waits to hand it over John Rucker, owner of the “turtle dogs.” The four-legged volunteers can sniff out 2.5 turtles per search hour, compared to the one turtle every four or five hours for a biologist.
 
0219: Dr. Matt Allender, Chicago Zoological Society clinical veterinarian and director of the University of Illinois Wildlife Epidemiology Laboratory, removes an ornate box turtle from a Boykin spaniel’s mouth as John Rucker, owner of the dog, praises it for finding the turtle.
 
0264: A team of students and veterinarians with the University of Illinois Wildlife Epidemiology Laboratory conduct health examinations on ornate box turtles, which includes collecting blood samples, swabbing the mouth, measuring height and length, evaluating weight and body condition, and taking an overall visual analysis of each turtle’s shell, eyes, nose, throat, and legs. The data collected not only provides a baseline for future studies of box turtle health, but also helps evaluate the health of the ecosystem.
 
0268: An ornate box turtle being weighed during a health examination. The species is threatened in the state of Illinois.
 
0278: Dr. Matt Allender, Chicago Zoological Society clinical veterinarian and director of the University of Illinois Wildlife Epidemiology Laboratory, looks at one of the 44 ornate box turtles that received a health examination during the first week of May at Nachusa Grasslands.
 
0297: Devin Edmonds, PhD, a student in the Illinois Natural History Survey, measures the carapace (shell) or an ornate box turtle during a heath exam.
 
0303: Kylie Ayers, a fourth-year veterinary student in the College of Veterinary Medicine at the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign, draws blood from an ornate box turtle during a health assessment conducted on the species at Nachusa Grasslands the first week of May.
 
About the Chicago Zoological Society
The mission of the Chicago Zoological Society is to inspire conservation leadership by engaging people and communities with wildlife and nature. The Chicago Zoological Society is a private nonprofit organization that operates Brookfield Zoo on land owned by the Forest Preserves of Cook County. The Society is known throughout the world for its international role in animal population management and wildlife conservation. Its Center for the Science of Animal Care and Welfare is at the forefront of animal care that strives to discover and implement innovative approaches to zoo animal management. Brookfield Zoo is the first zoo in the world to be awarded the Humane Certified™ certification mark for the care and welfare of its animals, meeting American Humane Association’s rigorous certification standards. The zoo is located at 8400 31st Street in Brookfield, Illinois, between the Stevenson (I-55) and Eisenhower (I-290) expressways and also is accessible via the Tri-State Tollway (I-294), Metra commuter line, and CTA and PACE bus service. For further information, visit CZS.org.
 
About the College of Veterinary Medicine
Part of the flagship campus of the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign, the College of Veterinary Medicine is dedicated to educating future veterinarians and biomedical scientists, making discoveries that improve animal, human, and environmental health, facilitating production of a safe food supply, and delivering outstanding clinical and diagnostic care for animals at a full-service teaching hospital, veterinary diagnostic laboratory, and regional clinics. For more information, please visit vetmed.illinois.edu.
 
 

MEDIA CONTACT:

Sondra Katzen
Media Relations Manager
Office: 708-688-8351
Cell Phone: 708-903-2071
E-mail: Sondra.Katzen@CZS.org

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