TOLEDO, Ohio — Before you can study turtles, you have to first find them, and in an environment of hardwood forests, densely covered ground and damp bottomlands such as those at Oak Openings and some of the other Metroparks, that can make for a very lengthy session of hide and seek for biologists.
But bring a team of Boykin spaniels into the picture, and suddenly the playing field shifts in favor of the researchers. These dogs, from a breed known for its ability to retrieve waterfowl in swampy habitat, have been trained to pick up the scent of a turtle on the move, track the animal down, and gently bring it to their handler.
The “turtle dogs” were at work here recently, locating Eastern box turtles as part of a research project by the Toledo Zoo and Metroparks Toledo. The zoo has been supporting box turtle research since 2012 and started its own such program in 2016.
Matt Cross, conservation biologist at the zoo, first used the turtle dogs as part of his doctoral research work in Oak Openings four years ago. In this current project, many of the box turtles that were found by the Boykin spaniels will be outfitted with transmitters and GPS trackers as part of a long-term study of the species. Cross said the dogs are game-changers when it comes to locating turtles, whose splotchy shells are easily disguised among the leaf litter.
“The dogs make a big difference. They are much more efficient at finding the turtles,” he said. “Once the dogs are turned loose, it’s a show. It is kind of a herding cats scenario since they are off following scent trails, but when they start finding turtles, everything is going on at once.”
The turtle dogs bring the box turtles to their handler, Tennessean John Rucker, and a group of biologists and volunteers takes over from there, measuring, weighing, and examining the turtles and fitting most of them with transmitters so their movements can be studied.
The yellow, black, and brown patterns on the box turtle shells make them very difficult for biologists to see on a forest floor covered in leaf litter.
Eastern box turtles are a “species of concern” in Ohio since not enough data are available to determine if they are threatened. Tim Schetter, director of natural resources at Metroparks, said the study should help determine the status of the turtles.
“The challenge from a research perspective is to get a large enough sample group so the research pays off,” he said. “In a nutshell, if you need to find turtles, then this is the best option. Using the dogs is a much more efficient way to locate them.”
The turtle dogs spent part of two days combing areas in Swan Creek, Wildwood, and Oak Openings parks, and in what were described as relatively poor conditions – cooler temperatures not conducive to the turtle movement that produces the scent trails – the Boykins found 29 box turtles.
Karen Menard, research and monitoring supervisor with Metroparks, said the cooperative venture between the zoo and the parks, with the assistance of the turtle dogs and a legion of volunteers, should provide a clearer picture of the Eastern box turtle’s status in the region.
“It is very encouraging to see that kind of collaboration and the overwhelming response from volunteers interested in helping out with the project,” she said. “As time goes on, we will learn more about these turtles.”