A good day for ornate box turtles, the people studying them and Boykin spaniels

Ongoing studies at Nachusa Grasslands, and other places, tells more about ornate box turtles and their place as shown by a day with Matt Allender and his team as well as John Rucker and his Boykin spaniels.

SHARE A good day for ornate box turtles, the people studying them and Boykin spaniels
John Rucker watches with joy as his Boykin spaniels, “turtle dogs,” were unleashed and race out into the field at Nachusa Grasslands.

John Rucker watches with joy as his Boykin spaniels, “turtle dogs,” were unleashed and race out into the field at Nachusa Grasslands.

Dale Bowman

FRANKLIN GROVE — As his five Boykin spaniels, noses to the ground, roiled around him, John Rucker called out, “Turtle!”

Credit Matt Allender’s superstition. When a lull comes in searching for ornate box turtles, he sends Rucker on ahead. It worked Wednesday at Nachusa Grasslands, a 4,000-acre property of The Nature Conservancy 100 miles west of Chicago.

Not that there were many lulls. They found 15 ornate box turtles and the shell of a dead one, better than Allender anticipated on a day starting in the 50s.

At each call of “turtle,” a group hustle ensued. Maris Daleo took the turtle, then taped it with basic info. Carly Clark found the GPS. Michelle Waligora tied an orange ribbon to flag where to return the turtle after clinical examination. Laura Adamovicz recorded data (GPS, turtle number, etc.).

The exact spot to return the turtle matters, said Allender, clinical veterinarian for the Chicago Zoological Society and director of the University of Illinois Wildlife Epidemiology Laboratory, because of their small range.

The identification number is from notches filed into the scutes, on left and right sides of the turtle’s carapace, when first found. Say L3R4.

The morning truly began when Rucker’s Skeeter, Yogi, Lazarus, Scamp and Ruger were unleashed and they boiled into the prairie.

Rucker, a character living off the grid in Montana, takes his “turtle dogs” around the country in summer to help turtle-conservation projects.

Becky Blankenship, who does a project for the Forest Preserve District of Will County, spotted the first turtle, then Yogi found it. With that early find, the hunt was underway in earnest. Finds piled up.

Ornate box turtles are threatened in Illinois. They were present at Nachusa, which includes remnant prairie, when the original tracts were purchased.

“We’re working with Matt Allender’s team to understand how large the population is, juvenile recruitment, and overall health of the turtles,” emailed Elizabeth Bach, research scientist for TNC at Nachusa.

“The population for the size of the area is healthy; and, in the areas where restoration conservation is occurring, the population is strong,” Allender said.

A fuss came when an eastern hognose snake was found; then a baby turtle.

Allender counted growth rings on the scutes and aged it around 2. Young ones are important data points of the immediate, while adults, who may live 50-70 years, give a view of the last 20-30 years.

Matt Allender examines a young ornate box turtle found at Nachusa Grasslands. Credit: Dale Bowman

Matt Allender examines a young ornate box turtle found at Nachusa Grasslands.

Dale Bowman

Then came the find of an empty shell of a dead turtle, bagged and saved.

“Probably an overwinter mortality,” Allender said.

Its tissue will be checked for such things as ranavirus.

As to their place, Bach emailed, “The turtles eat fruits, worms, slugs, mushrooms, and sometimes plants. They can serve as seed dispersers for some fruits; [and] consuming worms, slugs, and mushrooms serves as an important link in connecting the below-ground food web with the above-ground.”

After looping several miles, it was back to the vehicles. Adamovicz, who worked years with turtles, earned her doctorate and became at research scientist at the Wildlife Epidemiology Laboratory, oversaw rapid layout of the clinical tables. Then Andrea Colton and others efficiently swabbed the turtles, drew blood samples and recorded measurements.

Laura Adamovicz draws a blood sample from an ornate box turtle at Nachusa Grasslands. Credit: Dale Bowman

Laura Adamovicz draws a blood sample from an ornate box turtle at Nachusa Grasslands.

Dale Bowman

Allender said they developed the ability “to look for 32 different pathogens simultaneously from the single sample.” There is “over 160 different parameters for health monitoring during their examination and sample collection.”

One new piece is studying whether turtles could be blood donors to other turtles.

“We’re using turtle health to protect turtles but also as an indicator of the environmental quality,” Allender said.

Nachusa is open daily dawn to dusk. Details at nachusagrasslands.org.

John Rucker praises Skeeter, one of his Boykin spaniels, for finding a female ornate box turtle at Nachusa Grasslands. Credit: Dale Bowman

John Rucker praises Skeeter, one of his Boykin spaniels, for finding a female ornate box turtle at Nachusa Grasslands.

Dale Bowman

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