When an infectious disease threatened to wipe out one of its species, Saint Louis Zoo scientists had no alternative but to hire an elite team of turtle-hunting dogs to help them out.
The 425-acre site that makes up the Saint Louis Zoo WildCare Park that is used as part of the zoo’s extensive conservation programming found that their three-toed box turtles, a species whose numbers have already been in decline due to development, were being further decimated by an emerging pathogen called ranavirus. Very little is known about the disease which affects turtles, fish, and amphibians, and which, unfortunately in the case of box turtles, has around an 80 per cent fatality rate.
The zoo decided it had no alternative but to call in the man known as the “Turtle Whisperer.” John Rucker trains spaniels and says they are the “only dogs anywhere that do this kind of work.”
The seven turtle-detecting Boykin spaniels helped the Missouri research team track and retrieve box turtles using their enhanced sense of smell. This enables them to find animals in a matter of hours, where it would take researchers weeks.
But we don’t worry about the dogs as they cannot pick up the disease, or 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 are other reasons for searching for turtles: it’s part of the zoo’s continuing biodiversity studies at the soon-to-be Saint Louis Zoo WildCare Park, and it’s also for The Box Turtle Project, their nine-year conservation project on three-toed box turtles, Missouri’s state reptile.
“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,” Palmer added.
Check out the video below to learn more.