Spaniels trained to help conservationists save ornate box turtles

As the warming sun of spring spreads across America, our stunningly beautiful box turtles emerge from their winter slumber. In rural parts of the country, they are a familiar and welcome sight, but thanks to habitat encroachment by humans, dangerous highways, and roadways, and a host of other threats, box turtles are threatened and becoming rarer. Now box turtle conservation has help from some furry turtle enthusiasts who are experts in finding them.

In Iowa, specially-trained Boykin spaniels from Montana are helping conservationists track the remaining ornate box turtles on land owned by the Bur Oak Land Trust, a non-profit attempting to save habitat for creatures like the box turtles.

A reporter for Iowa Public Radio, Kate Payne went on a turtle-hunting expedition with John Rucker, a 70-year old dog trainer and turtle expert from Montana who works with four dogs who seem to have taken to collecting turtles (without harming them) all on their own at first. Now, he and his dogs, Jenny Wren, Mink, Jaybird, and Rooster travel the country helping locate the hard-to-spot reptiles for scientists and conservationists.

Payne joined Rucker on a turtle expedition on the Bur Oak Land Trust’s property in Eastern Iowa. When the dogs spot a turtle in the grassy fields and undergrowth, they become incredibly excited.

“You will notice that as soon as they strike a scent trail their tails will start wagging furiously, and then their whole demeanor becomes extremely excitable,” Rucker explains.

According to the Iowa City Press-Citizen:

“Rucker, now in his early seventies, is said to have entered the turtle-finding business almost by accident when he was training bird dogs several decades ago. While training to scent on bird species, one of his Boykins brought back a turtle instead, and soon the dog was bringing other turtles to his master, gently gripped in his mouth. Rucker used the scent in box turtle shells to train other dogs and he soon became a popular contact for researchers.”

Rucker described how his dogs started collecting turtles for him in an interview. (see video at the end of this article)

“I was living in the mountains of East Tennesse, where there are are a lot of box turtles, Eastern box turtles,” explained Rucker. “And I had one Boykin spaniel at the time and he had an interesting sort of a mystical personality. And one day he just started bringing me box turtles. I praised him. I didn’t encourage him, but I praised him and he comprehended that I was interested in them, so he took it upon himself to find more and more and more. He became absolutely obsessed with it,” he said.

From there, the first dog guru trained the other spaniels that soon joined his family, and before long, word spread far and wide enough that researchers started contactin Rucker for his dogs’ help in tracking turtles.

The ornate box turtles have intricate markings of golden yellow, orange, or red on a neutral grey and black background. Their markings are unique, so much so that the researchers don’t have to tag or mark them in any way. The pattern on the plastron of their shell underneath each turtle is like a one-of-a-kind fingerprint, so they take pictures of the turtle’s shell to track each one. The hinged lower shell allows the turtles to close up entirely inside their shell like a “box.”

Once the dogs bring the turtles to Rucker, the scientists weigh them, take measurements, test their blood for diseases and potential health problems, and photograph them, recording the data carefully. The information helps them manage the habitat and improve the survival rates for the threatened species.

The box turtles are the only native terrestrial species of turtle in Iowa, living mostly on the land. They used to roam the vast prairies along with the herds of American Bison, but those days are long gone, and the meadows were plowed by European settlers. Now the slow-moving ornate box turtles are one of the most vulnerable species in the state.

With the help of his enthusiastic pups, Rucker is able to track down far more turtles than would be possible for humans. He once found as many as 85 turtles during a 10-day search in Iowa, while humans could find only 12 in comparison. Today, Jason Taylor from the land trust says he’d be happy if the dogs find ten turtles this spring.

“The turtles are very camouflaged and not easy to find,” said Taylor. “If we can find ten this spring with the dogs, I’ll be through the roof.”

By tracking the populations of box turtles, the researchers get an indication of environmental health overall. As long-lived species that can live for 80 years, their health over the years can tell us valuable information about the health of the environments we all rely on. Turtles are one part of the interconnected web of life, and a beautiful one we should all help to preserve for future generations.

In 2017, Nebraska made the ornate box turtle its state reptile:


See more about John Rucker and conservationists working to save box turtles below:

Featured image: CCO Public Domain, Google, photo Ryan Wagner/ Special to the Press-Citizen

Show Your Friends!
Matthew Silvan

Progressive liberal from the American south. Working to educate and inform on issues like preserving the environment, equality for minorities and women, and improving the quality of life for mankind and our ecosystem. Following the facts in the face of a movement to follow only the money.

Click Here to Leave a Comment Below 0 comments