From the Field

Day of the (Turtle) Dogs

brown dog with box turtle in its mouth
A turtle dog with her prize, an ornate box turtle. © Cara Byington/TNC

It’s a fine May morning, and until a couple of minutes ago, the search for ornate box turtles here at the Conservancy’s Nachusa Grasslands Preserve in Central Illinois was going extremely well. We are up to 16 turtles on the morning so far.

Unfortunately, progress has come to a halt because the field assistants found the remains of something that might once have been a bison. And now they’re rolling in it. With glee.

“Well,” says John Rucker, as he surveys his mucky, happy charges. “Getting that smell out of their coats is going to be a project.”

Rucker gives a few quick commands and his field assistants – four female Boykin spaniels – finish their impromptu break, and get back to the job at hand: namely, tracking and retrieving every ornate box turtle they can find in these restored and remnant native prairies.

Yes, retrieving. I expected the tracking. The retrieving part came as a bit of a shock.

“The dogs find more ornates in two or three hours than we’d probably find in a whole week or even longer,” says Matt Allender, the team leader for the University of Illinois scientists at Nachusa this week, many of whom are grad students, doctoral candidates and post docs working on projects related to reptile health. “We couldn’t do this project without John and the turtle dogs. They’re part of the team.”

John Rucker with one of his turtle dogs. It’s not easy to find ornate box turtles in the thick grasses of the prairie, which is where the dogs — with their sensitive noses — have a definite advantage over scientists. © Cara Byington/TNC

These medium-sized spaniels with their amber eyes and thick, brown coats that shine like copper in the sunshine were originally bred in South Carolina for bird hunting. But the breed also produces, as Rucker discovered by accident some years ago, a few special individuals who turn out to make excellent, well, turtle retrievers.

“They have very soft mouths,” Rucker explains as Jenny Wren (who has been finding the majority of turtles this morning) lopes up with the latest ornate find, which will be turtle number 19 by my count.

Jenny sits obediently at John’s feet, holding up her prize – like it’s some kind of reptilian tennis ball — and I can see that her tongue is between her bottom teeth and the turtle’s plastron (the bottom of its shell). She’s holding the ornate so lightly, I don’t feel any resistance when I slip it from her mouth. And the turtle shell is not even slobbery like a tennis ball would be.

brown dog with a small turtle in its mouth
Turtle dog with her prize — an ornate box turtle — at Nachusa Grasslands. © Cara Byington/TNC

“I have the turtle,” I say to one of the nearby scientists who is busy logging the exact GPS coordinates where Jenny Wren first found the turtle. It’s important to record the location precisely so the scientists, once they finish their tests, can return the turtles (by human hand this time) to the exact same place they were originally found.

“See?” Rucker says as he bends down to pet and praise Jenny. “The dogs are very gentle and they carry the turtles without injuring them. Ornates, blandings, Eastern box turtles, wood turtles, they can track and retrieve them all.”

Ornate box turtles, which tend to grow to around five to seven inches in length, are known for their beautiful backs (the carapace). To me, their shells look like a night sky full of yellow starbursts. They are true box turtles – one of the few turtles capable of completely sealing themselves inside their shells for protection from predators.

An adult ornate box turtle with a damaged, but healed shell, probably from farm machinery. © Cara Byington/TNC

Which helps protect the adult turtles from, say, raccoons and badgers, but does little to thwart farm machinery and cars. The conversion of native Illinois prairie to farmland and pasture is one of the main reasons ornates are listed as a threatened species in Illinois.

Nachusa Grasslands has several populations of ornates, but Bill Kleiman, the preserve manager, would like to know more about how healthy and viable they are. Are there enough turtles of different ages to sustain ornates on the preserve into the foreseeable future? Are they healthy? Diseased? Injured? He needs to know more to inform the way the preserve is managed.

The bottom line, he says, is that “we want a lot more turtles here, and to make that possible, we need to understand many different aspects of our current population.”

It’s that need for more data – more evidence to inform the science behind the Preserve’s ongoing restoration and management — that brings Allender and his crew, and John Rucker and his spaniels to Nachusa this week. The scientists have set up a temporary field station under a tan canvas tent where they’ll be assessing all the turtles they collect.

Honestly, the set up – with its colorful canvas camp chairs and folding tables covered with scientific instruments — looks like a cross between a high-tech lab and a tailgate party. And as I watch the scientists go to work on the specimens they’ve collected this morning (22 by my last count), I keep thinking it’s a little like all those stories people tell about alien abductions. Only with turtles.

Say, aahhhh….scientists swab an ornate box turtle for DNA. © Cara Byington/TNC

There are tackle boxes full of test tubes and slides, selections of syringes for drawing turtle blood, pipettes, cotton-tipped swabs, laser thermometers, electronic scales for gathering weight data, and even a portable doppler monitor. Most commonly used to monitor human fetal heart rates, the monitor also works great for monitoring ornate turtle heart rates. The scientists are looking in turtle eyes and down turtle throats, listening to their hearts, taking their temperatures and just generally giving each ornate a thorough – and thoroughly recorded – check up.

Over the coming days, weeks and months, they’ll be analyzing the blood they’ve taken and sequencing the DNA they’ve collected to learn more about the health and genetic makeup of the ornate populations here at Nachusa.

The thing is, all of this technology – all of the gear and potential – is useless without turtles to use it on. After all, notes Allender, “it’s hard to assess the health of turtles when you can’t actually find any.”

And to find them, the scientists need John Rucker and his turtle dogs.

That’s the beauty of my day with the turtle dogs at Nachusa – even as field science becomes more and more high tech with portable DNA sequencers and fetal heart rate monitors with transducers small enough to fit under an ornate box turtle’s shell, there’s still nothing like muddy boots canine-assisted field science to get the job done.

Because, ultimately, it’s not just about the turtles. It’s about what the ornate box turtle populations at Nachusa Grasslands signal about the health of the preserve overall.

“We need to understand the turtles,” Kleiman explains, “because they are such a signature prairie species. If we have healthy population numbers, with many different ages of individual turtles, then we know that our prairie – our remnants and restored prairies – are functioning the way they’re supposed to. The turtles help us know if we’re succeeding or failing.”

Cara Cannon Byington

Cara Cannon Byington is a science writer for The Nature Conservancy covering the work of Conservancy scientists and partners, including the NatureNet Fellows for Cool Green Science. A misplaced Floridian living in Maryland, she is especially fond of any story assignment involving boats and islands, and when not working, can be found hiking, kayaking or traveling with her family and friends. More from Cara

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65 comments

  1. Interesting story, and those sweet dogs with gentle mouths. — Tana Kappel

  2. My dog finds turtles 2. I live in Michigan, I’d love to help out. Out box turtles are on the endangered species list. When I do run across them I note where when, Markings male or female, then I use a oil marker and put a symbol on them and write it date a d enter into my book. I. Always telling ppl not to move them unless they are in the road.

  3. “… might once have been a bison. And now they’re rolling in it. With glee.” Love that visual. My first encounter with a turtle was in S Jersey when my wife and I stopped on the side of the road to move a box turtle off the road before it got hit by other cars. Hope this program finds and helps its (now endangered) great-great-great-grandchildren… or hmmm … given a box turtle life span, maybe just grand-children?

  4. Do You Return The Turtles Where You Found Them After You’re Done Testing And Checking Them All Out To Be Sure Their Healthy Or I Guess I’m Curious What Or Where You Put Them After Checking Their Health ! Do You Have Like A Special Area Or Cage For Them To Keep Them From Danger And Like Where People Can Come See Them ? I’m Interested In Learning About Them And Was Wondering If You Can Do A Video On What All You Do With The Turtles !

    1. Thanks so much your question — the scientists are very careful to record the location where each turtle is found with a GPS. After they’re done testing the turtles, they take them back out onto the prairie and put them back in the same place. The turtles are wild and live on the prairie at Nachusa Grasslands year round, but they’re not kept in cages. You can visit the prairie and try to see one in its native habitat, though they can be very difficult to find because they are camouflaged so well. If you do find one, please don’t touch. The scientists have special permission for their work and are specially trained to work with the animals without harming them. We’re hoping to do a video on the work soon. Thanks again for your interest!

    2. Thank you for asking that question. That was my first concern as well, and hoping they returned them unharmed by experimentation ! Is it really necessary to put heart monitors under their shell? Seems like overkill to me and cumbersome for the turtles.

  5. Great article. Thanks for the coverage of the cool work dogs and scientists are doing. The only down side to this method is that people with less than honorable intentions are also using the technique of search dogs to find turtles to sell them to the Asian (read: China) markets.

    Peter Miller
    member–Turtle Survival Alliance

  6. I don’t like people experimenting on animals are you sure they won’t be hurt in anyway, are you really just checking temperatures and blood tests? This is concerning to me

  7. If been doing that on my property for a couple of years now. Just as a hobby with my dogs who r of different breeds

  8. This is disturbing to me on many levels. The image of the turtle in the dogs mouth….not good. Although you say these dogs are gentle, there is the possibility that the turtles could be harmed. Probing them for experimentation ? How about we just leave them in their natural environment?
    As a supporter of Nature Conservancy, I am not sure I want to support this experimentation. I happen to love turtles !!

    1. From the article it appears none of the dog-mouthed turtles were harmed. As for the tests they performed on the turtles, I would think most are pretty necessary (even if they seem excessive) to understand the health of the population. Knowing the health and diversity of the turtle population is key to better managing and improving the land at Nachusa (and elsewhere).

  9. That is so fascinating and great that you are working to note the number of box turtles on your preserve, as well as checking them to see how healthy the pop. is. The most amazing aspect of your work is the turtle dogs! One might guess that dogs are the heroes here!

  10. I have one as well. It is Half Cocker and half King Charles, she found nine on one 2 mile hike in Blacksburg , VA. She is so proud:)

  11. This is so awesome! Dogs are becoming more and more necessary for conservation efforts. They are so low impact and successful at finding their quarry that I hope they are used even more often! Nachusa is a grand place to visit and is the perfect model for other prairie conservation projects!

  12. Bird dogs can be good turtle finders, perhaps because birds did evolve from reptiles. I had a Brittany that was good on grouse, woodcock, pheasants, and box turtles. Friends of mine also had bird dogs that liked to point box turtles.

  13. Hello:

    Good article. This would be an excellent project to develop for the endemic and endangered box turtle, Terrapene coahuila, in Cuatro Cienegas, Coahuila, which is well on its way to extinction. If you would know someone that would be interested in pursuing this, I could probably find a contact for you within the scientists working there, presuming someone there would be interested.

  14. I remember many of these turtles during my childhood in Eastern Pennsylvania. We always had one or two that hung around the house and we loved them. How do the turtles the dogs gather taken back to
    their territories? I didn’t see that mentioned I the article. I love the dogs. They are so precious with the turtles.
    Thank you,
    Linda Barnes

    1. Hi Linda — thanks for your note. I love turtles, too. The scientists carefully mark the location where each turtle is found with GPS and then return them back to their individual coordinates. It’s a very detailed and documented process.

  15. i am in favor of this research if in the process there are no lab on the turtles that are torturous painful. i think the area can boarded off to keep them safer

  16. Thank you for this beautiful story. So wonderful to read of the successful work of the Turtle dogs. The pictures are beautiful! I had an African Spur Thigh for many years from a 3 inch baby that we took to Colorado from Texas and then back to Texas years later. She had a very large yard to graze in and a protected shelter with heating and a/c that my husband built for her. Circumstances
    became such that we had to move to a smaller home with practically no yard and we made the difficult decision to give her up. She went to live on a ranch where she had ample room to roam and the company of other turtles like herself. We missed her terribly . She and our Siamese were pals that enjoyed each other’s company for many years.

  17. Most enlightening article with lots of details. Makes one wish to participate in this experience. Congratulations to this team in the field for their work.

  18. The Dogs are amazing and do a wonderful job retrieving turtles in a short time. Something it would take man hours to do.

  19. Love this article!

    Glad to hear we’re trying to make sure these turtles have a chance to survive. Now if only we could come up with some acceptable way to slow population growth which is the greatest threat of all to natural plants and animals.

  20. Cara,

    I just read your article and Matt’s–Nice job by the both of you. Interesting, useful information that is easily read. Fun too!

    Best wishes for cont’d. success,
    Len M.

  21. Keep a sharp lookout for box turtle “Bekins” whom we rescued from near disaster in Tulsa, Oklahoma while we were renting a townhouse in 1970. Bekins enjoyed many months of pampering with shelter, interaction with Claire while I was at work, and an excellent diet. Every morning when Claire opened the draperies Bekins would scamper over for his ration of hamburger, lettuce, and cherry tomatoes. Alas, one morning he didn’t scamper over; he was gone, never to be seen again. We ruled out predators such as raccoons because a high fence surrounded the patio he lived in. We can only hope he landed in friendly territory. Keep up the good works.

  22. All’s well, except that there is always the issue of animal cruelty the minute you start exploring these turtles, whether it’s by a vet , taking a DNA, checking all the way down heart organs and all…”we need to understand the turtles” Kleiman says, at what cost! and after all tests & exploitation you’ll return them back to their original location, in what condition will these little animals be after all??? Do you expect them to survive it all??? of course not, would you, a human??? All in the name of science ….sad, very sad that animals can’t be left alone to live their lives, meaning all animals!

    1. Animal cruelty is quite a stretch. I’m sure the turtles would prefer not to be picked up and prodded, but think about what a wild turtle goes through in nature- being hunted by raccoons or run over by cars. This monitoring by the scientists is for a good cause and is hardly a threat to their survival. Science like this is how we know if a species or ecosystem is in decline. Without understanding the environment or the wildlife that depends on it, we can’t hope to help when they are in need.

  23. love this, as I love turtles…keep up the good work..the dogs seem to enjoy this, plus its good exercise for the, until they find something to roll in…wow…lol

  24. I loved this story because it was so informative. Never knew that dogs could do this. They are so gentle!
    Hope that the project is successful!

  25. Thanks for this story. It reminded me of my old lab mix dog. She loved finding & picking up ornate box turtles to carry home. She was especially fond of picking up the babies and transporting them with her mouth closed. “Birdie, do you have something in your mouth?” With that, she rolled out a baby off of her tongue. Of course I had to return the turtles to where she found them.
    Unfortunately these turtles have now become rare here.

  26. This was a very interesting article. It is amazing that the dogs do not crunch down on the shells. The research the students are doing is astounding. That the prairies are coming back is remarkable.

  27. Terrapin Ornata’s have been living and breeding in my organic back yard for 10 years. I rescued my first turtle from a busy street on a hot 110 degree August day. I took him to a reptile vet to treat his lung infection. It was a lengthy process. I learned that they required at least a 85 degree temp to heal their lungs and a diet high in veggies and fruit. They especially like sweet potatoes and strawberries but will eat tomatoes and bell peppers. Over the years I found a female Ornata that I rehabbed. I now have nine turtles, some brought to me by others, with injured shells. My male Gibbs and female Ziva have bred and I have two turtle babies indoors. They are very slow growers. They do become acclimated to one who cares for them. For the most part I let them live an undisturbed life in my backyard. They enter hibernation around October and come out usually in late March or early April. I keep all chemicals off my yard. In the summer I can find my turtles in the early morning eating from my organic garden. I am stressed by the breeding industry that sells and exploits these beautiful creatures. Two of my turtles will come to my back patio door and scratch the glass to gain my attention. The Native Americans celebrate the turtle as a symbol of the circle of life. Our life is only as healthy as our animals, our nature, our soil, air and water.

  28. My name is John Nichols, I have a degree in wildlife biology from the University of Montana.
    I own quite a bit of land near Brasstown Bald in north GA.
    I grew up there, and after a long haitus, I returned. I am considering giving my land to the Nature Conservancy.
    I have records of eastern box turtles dating back to the 70’s. They have always had a soft spot in my heart.
    I would love to be a part of any study.

  29. leave it to TNC to “think outside the box”, by using the spaniels to retrieve Ornate Box Turtles!

  30. I do have Boykin Spaniels. Mine are rescues! They are wonderful dogs! Very smart & fun dogs. They LOVE to please their humans.
    After I rescued my first Boykin Spaniel from the shelter, without knowing which breed she was, I felt in love with the breed and my neighbor from SC was the one who told me which breed she was.
    Super cool article and how to involve working dogs to keep them busy, happy and make human’s jobs easier!

  31. What a wonderful article! I am a turtle-lover and this made my day! I want to share with my Facebook friends!

  32. So how do they train the dogs to retrieve turtles? And if the dogs just do this naturally/instinctively, why?

  33. Looks like a lot of fun. The turtles definitely need our help. Thanks for sharing.

  34. I’m so excited that turtles are being helped by Boykins! We had a Boykin for 16 years — the best dog ever. Great article.
    Thanks!

  35. My husband and I live in northern Arkansas on 72 acres. We have a dog that is half Jack Russell and half Fox terrier.
    We call him The Turtle Taxi. He carries turtles from one side of our field to another side. He then gently lays them down on the ground beneath a tree. He digs a shallow hole and covers the turtle up. I have checked to make sure the turtle is alive and well. My husband counts the turtles that he actually sees our dog carry. One summer it was in the 30s or 40s. Box turtles. We enjoyed this article.

  36. So cool!! I wonder if anyone is doing something similar with Bog Turtles in eastern Pennsylvania ?

  37. I enjoyed the article very much. Thank you and I look forward to more articles.

  38. I assume the dogs are used, as is done elsewhere, to retrieve (and protect) turtles in advance of controlled burns, upon which the grassland ecosystem itself can not survive?

    1. Hi Bill — at Nachusa, they burn in March when the turtles are still underground hibernating. In this part of the state, turtles tend to emerge around the third week of April.

  39. In the picture above it appears this area has been prescribed burned. Since this is usually done in the winter are the turtles overwintering underground and protected from the fire?
    How are you able to train the dogs to find the turtles? We have grasslands in Arkansas that are burned on a rotating schedule. I will check with local officials to see how the box turtles in this area are surveyed and protected.

    1. Hi Randall — yes, the burns are conducted when the turtles are still underground hibernating. At Nachusa, preserve staff burns in March and the turtles usually start emerging about the 3rd week in April.

  40. We had a german short haired pointer that was very good at finding turtles also and was very gentle with them.

  41. Interesting that the turtles were the signature species of the prairie and equally astonishing was that of the soft mouthed Boykin spaniels who have a penchant for locating and retrieving these turtles.

  42. Lovely to see and read about these bet creatures!
    I dreamt this morning that I saw turtles on a river shore!
    Bless the humans ,animals and mother earth!

  43. I live a square from the confluence of the Licking and Ohio River in Covington Ky. In the nature area behind our building we have a resident population of box turtles. I can identify many of them my various marks on their carapace. Every year I find newly hatched and on several occasions witnessed them copulating. Box Turtles seem to be thriving in Covington.

  44. Way cool!!! Amazing canines doing what humans can’t!! Love it!!

  45. Extremely interesting article. The dogs are amazing. I am comforted by the zeal with which these scientists approach their work in the face of the tRUMP administration doing all in their power to tear science apart.

  46. If you need more box turtles or turtle hunters come to Stafford Virginia! My two Boykin Spaniel girls find them all summer long!! 🙂

  47. As an 84 year-old nature lover, my memories of finding Eastern Box Turtles in what is now metropolitan New Jersey are fond and vivid. Living between Newark and Elizabeth, where undisturbed woods and fields could still be found in the thirties and forties, afforded me the opportunity to find these dear turtles. I would bring them home and care for them in the outdoor enclosure my father made. They were quickly tamed, eating from my hand favorite treats like liverwurst and earthworms. They became so fat that fully retreating into their box shell became impossible. Using a sandy area of the enclosure, eggs were laid and hatched. Somehow the hatchlings escaped though. Your article warmed my heart just knowing that someone cares for these gentle sweet reptiles that were so much a part of my childhood over 70 Years ago.

  48. Hello, those turtles are beautiful. It seems so much of nature is disappearing it is sad. People have to know what is going on. We do not know how many beautiful creatures are out there, it is so nice to know today I learned about those beautiful little turtles. Dogs are amazing, I had several, and each are different, each have a gift to ease our life. I am amazed about those “turtle dogs” it is wonderful to know.
    Thank you to scientists, researchers helping our nature, our country to be better humans.

  49. I love this! A combination of natural habitat, turtles and happy working dogs. I would love to see it in action. I grew up in Chicago, got a PH.D. on Painted Turtles at UW , Madison, and Have a life time relationship with Labrador retrievers so you can see why this feels sooo right to me. Also my parents came from SE Kansas where Ornate Box Turtles used to be abundant.