(The Center Square) – One hundred years ago, ornate box turtles were found in half of the 102 counties in Illinois. Now they live in only 10 counties.
Dr. Matt Allender, a scientist at the University of Illinois and clinical veterinarian with the Chicago Zoological Society, uses a team of Boykin spaniel dogs to hunt for endangered ornate box turtles.
The dogs are much more efficient at collecting the four-inch brown-and-gold-patterned box turtles than the scientists on Allender’s team.
“People can find a box turtle, about one in every 2.5 search hours. So if you are out for a day, you can find about four. One of these dogs can find a box turtle every 15 minutes,” Allender told Illinois Radio Network.
The dogs don’t hurt the box turtles. The scientists study the creatures for about an hour and then they put them right back on the prairie. The effort is part of the longest and largest health survey of box turtles in North American, Sondra Katzen of the Chicago Zoological Society told Illinois Radio Network.
Allender says the ornate box turtles are sentinels of environmental health.
“Even if you don’t care about wildlife and you don’t care about turtles, these animals are critical for evaluating the natural resources that we provide our society on. I’m doing this to save the world and we’re using box turtles to do it,” Allender said.
Ornate box turtles do not need a lot of space, but they cannot thrive on just any tract of prairie, Allender says. They need prairie with diverse nutrients and soil composition.
At the Nachusa Grasslands, a 4,000-acre reclaimed prairie, there are over 70 different species of prairie grass or prairie plants that generate seeds and host insects that turtles and many different species of birds and pollinators depend on. At Nachusa, the ornate box turtles have an important animal partner in the native bison who live there. As the large, heavy bison tramp across the grasslands, their hooves churn the soil, spreading seeds and creating habitat for the bugs and insects that the turtles eat.
When the prairies and the bison disappeared, ornate box turtle populations in Illinois were decimated as well, Allender said.
See Dr. Allender and John Rucker, the dog owner and trainer, in action with the Boykin spaniels in an eight-minute video Boykin spaniels collect turtles that the Chicago Zoological Society has made.