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Reptile-Sniffing Dogs Become Research Assistants to Help the Saint Louis Zoo Save Box Turtles

·2-min read

Saint Louis Zoo

These dogs have a nose for reptiles.

"Turtle Whisperer," John Rucker and his seven turtle-detecting Boykin spaniels recently helped the Saint Louis Zoo survey their shelled neighbors. After hearing about him from colleagues at the University of Illinois Wildlife Epidemiology Lab, the zoo reached out to Rucker for assistance with a study at their new 425-acre WildCare Park.

"We are studying a disease called ranavirus that is known to cause mortality in box turtles. We recently found ranavirus in aquatic turtles on the property. We quickly planned out a follow-up study across other animal groups to look for the virus — in amphibians, aquatic turtles, and box turtles. For this, we hired John and his dogs in hopes of finding 10 box turtles at the start of the spring/summer/fall season so we could place our telemetry devices on them and visit monthly," Dr. Sharon Deem, the director of the Saint Louis Zoo Institute for Conservation Medicine, tells PEOPLE about how the partnership came to be.

For the study, Rucker let his dogs, trained to detect the box turtles by scent, sniff around the WildCare Park for every reptile they could find.

Saint Louis Zoo

When one of the dogs found a box turtle during their search, they gently picked the reptile up in their soft mouth and brought it to a zoo researcher, who would swab the turtle's mouth and tag them for tracking. Seeing where and how the ranavirus has spread through the area will help the Saint Louis Zoo learn more about the virus — which doesn't infect dogs or humans — and how to keep animals from getting ill.

Saint Louis Zoo

"Conserving box turtles is important for a number of reasons. A simple one is that these little creatures are part of the natural system and help with maintaining environmental health through their predator and prey roles, eggs laying that may add nutrients to the soils, and form hibernaculum when they build their shelters to spend the winter months away from the elements," Dr. Deem, says adding that "also, box turtles are just so cool."

RELATED: Cold-Stunned Rescue Sea Turtles Released Into the Gulf of Mexico After Months of Rehabilitation

Saint Louis Zoo

While this task could've been completed solely by humans, that effort would've taken weeks, instead of few hours, since humans would have to rely on their eyes, instead of their noses.

"The Saint Louis Zoo Institute for Conservation Medicine has been studying box turtles in the St. Louis area for nine years now. In that time, we've learned just how difficult it can be to find box turtles just by looking with the human eye. Box turtles have evolved to blend in perfectly with their surroundings, which is perfect for escaping predators but presents researchers with a real challenge," Dr. Deem says.

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