The Saint Louis Zoo WildCare Park is a 425-acre site that is being used as part of the zoo’s conservation program.
A infectious disease called Ranavirus was discovered in the area and it is known to be 80% fatal to turtles.
To save the box turtle population inside the conservation area the zoo called a man known as the “Turtle Whisperer.” John Rucker has trained his spaniels to sniff out box turtles. Rucker’s dogs are the “only dogs anywhere that do this kind of work.”
The dogs are able to sniff out and retrieve the box turtles in a matter of hours. Rucker’s dogs then use their soft mouths to pick up the turtles and bring them to researchers, who swab the turtles’ mouths, and tag them for a year until they hibernate again.
Saint Louis Zoo scientists are trying to be proactive and don’t worry the dogs cannot pick up the disease nor do they spread it to other turtles.
“Every year we do annual health assessments of our turtles at our field sites. We spread out in a line and just walk the woods, eyes to the ground—and we don’t do it well because they’re good at hiding,” explains Jamie Palmer, of the St. Louis Zoo Institute for Conservation Medicine.
“There’s so much error in humans, and we’ve spent hundreds of hours. But dogs, their noses are better than ours…and we’ve seen them find a lot of turtles.”
The zoo has been studying box turtles for about nine years and on their website posted some fun facts about box turtles.
Box turtles, like most reptiles, are cold-blooded (ectothermic) and regulate their body temperature by basking in the sun during the cooler morning and evening hours, while seeking shade during hotter times of day. The preferred habitats of Missouri box turtles are prairies, forests and glades. Box turtles get their name from a special hinge on the bottom part of their shell (the plastron) that allows them to close or “box” up as a form of protection against predators.