CHICAGO – A hundred years ago, ornate box turtles were found in half of Illinois’ 102 counties.
Now they live in only 10.
Dr. Matt Allender, a scientist at the University of Illinois and clinical veterinarian for the Chicago Zoological Society, uses a team of Boykin Spaniel dogs to hunt endangered ornate box turtles.
The dogs are far more efficient than the scientists on Allender’s team at collecting the four-inch brown and gold patterned box turtles.
“People can find a box turtle about every 2.5 hours of searching,” Allender said. “So if you’re out for a day, you can find about four.
“One of these dogs can find a box turtle every 15 minutes.”
The dogs don’t hurt the box turtles. The scientists examine the creatures for about an hour and then put them right back on the prairie.
The effort is part of the longest and largest box turtle health screening in North America, Sondra Cats of the Chicago Zoological Society told Illinois Radio Network. Allender says the ornate box turtles are guardians of environmental health.
“Even if you don’t care about wildlife and turtles, these animals are critical to assessing the natural resources we make available to our society. I’m doing this to save the world and we’re using boxing turtles to do this, ”Allender said.
Ornate box turtles don’t take up a lot of space, but they can’t thrive on every prairie, says Allender. They need prairie with different nutrients and soil composition.
The Nachusa Grasslands, a 4,000-acre reclaimed prairie in northern Illinois, has more than 70 different species of prairie grass or prairie plants that produce seeds and house insects that turtles and many different species of birds and pollinators rely on.
At Nachusa, the ornate box turtles have an important animal partner in the native bison that live there. As the large, heavy bison trudge across the grassland, their hooves rummage through the ground, spreading seeds and creating habitat for the beetles and insects that the turtles eat.
As the prairies and bison disappeared, Illinois’ ornate box turtle populations were also decimated, Allender said.