Students are participating in a pilot study designed by scientists from the Saint Louis Zoo and Washington University in St. Louis to document box turtle movements and their health status in urban and rural areas in and around St. Louis.
FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE
June 12, 2012
FOR FURTHER INFORMATION:
Saint Louis Zoo 314/781-0900
Susan Gallagher, 314/646-4633
Christy Childs, 314/646-4639
Joanna Bender, 314/646-4703
CITY YOUTH HELP ZOO, WASHINGTON UNIVERSITY SCIENTISTS STUDY THE HEALTH AND MOVEMENT OF ST. LOUIS BOX TURTLES
Thirteen St. Louis youth were in Forest Park on June 13, 2012, tracking box turtles, fitted with telemetry devices—all to help with a project aimed at studying box turtle movements and their health.
The 11-, 12- and 13-year-olds are participating in a pilot study designed by scientists from the Saint Louis Zoo and Washington University in St. Louis to document box turtle movements and their health status in urban and rural areas in and around St. Louis. This study comes at a critical time as previous studies conducted across the globe show that many populations of turtles are being threatened by vehicles, habitat loss, and disease. However, the conservation status of box turtles in Missouri is not well-understood.
The Zoo and university launched the Box Turtle Project this spring as turtles were coming out of hibernation. To begin this pilot project, 20 turtles—10 in Forest Park and 10 at the university’s Tyson Research Center—will be fitted with radio tags that emit unique frequencies so they can be tracked over the coming year. In addition, the turtles have been marked with small, V-shaped notches on their upper shells to provide individual identification.
At the end of the pilot study, the scientists will compare data from urban (Forest Park) and rural (Tyson Research Center) turtle populations and use the results to develop a larger scale research program.
Led by Zoo and Washington University scientists, students from the Ecology Club of South City Preparatory Academy will join three Washington University undergraduates in a search for some of the 10 Forest Park turtles that have been fitted with telemetry devices. They will use receivers to hear chirps from the small transmitters anchored on the backs of the tagged turtles. The students will also help scientists weigh each turtle and perform the weekly veterinary checks, as part of the health and movement ecology monitoring program.
The students have been preparing for the June 13 monitoring effort by discussing turtle biology and ecology and practicing tracking the turtles using plush toys equipped with radio tags.
“One of the most important goals of a conservation project, like this one, is to use all the natural wonder of Forest Park to develop empathy in children toward animals and nature,” said Alice Seyfried, curator of the Emerson Children’s Zoo and director of the Zoo’s WildCare Institute Center for Conservation in Forest Park. “Our center has a strong track record for addressing challenges and educating youth, so we are optimistic that this program will have a positive impact on these young people.
“We also know from earlier studies that conservation-minded adults were likely to have spent time in nature as children and that playing in nature has a profound effect on childhood development. Box turtles hold a special charm because, as children, many of us saw and picked them up. Now scientists believe they may be in trouble, so we want to help them.”
Dr. Sharon Deem, director of the Institute for Conservation Medicine, who is co-directing the study, said that blood drawn from the turtles in both rural and urban areas will be monitored for stress hormones, in addition to indicators of disease. “This pilot program will result in a database that may show the value of box turtles as sentinels for health issues that may affect both animal and human urban dwellers.
“Essentially, we are studying box turtle health to better understand environmental factors that may be affecting the health of wildlife and humans, alike,” she said, adding that another goal is to address the nature deficit seen in children today—a deficit that affects their health and well-being. This project involves environmental education, ecological and health sciences and offers a holistic approach that we believe will help us achieve strong conservation results.”
Many aspects of the box turtle project, particularly the combination of animal tracking research with outreach for school-age children, were initiated as a result of positive experiences gained by Dr. Stephen Blake, a co-investigator on the project and visiting scientist at Washington University, who is also coordinating an on-going study of the movements and ecology of giant tortoises on the Galapagos Islands (www.gianttortoise.org). On Galapagos, local school children are introduced to conservation by direct involvement in the research program.
“Through this study, the Forest Park box turtles, though they are 100 times smaller than their distant giant cousins in Galapagos, can offer a similar window into nature and conservation science for St. Louisans,” said Dr. Blake.
Partners in the project are Forest Park Forever, Washington University in St. Louis Tyson Research Center, the Zoo’s WildCare Institute Center for Conservation in Forest Park and the Zoo’s Institute for Conservation Medicine.
# # #
ABOUT THE TURTLES: Box turtles, like most reptiles, are cold-blooded (ectothermic) and regulate their body temperature by basking during the cooler morning and evening hours, while seeking shade during hotter times of day. Box turtles get their name from a special hinge on the bottom part of their shell (the plastron) that allows them to close or “box” up as a form of protection against predators. Box turtles are omnivorous and typically eat worms, snails, berries, fungi, and arthropods. Species, like the box turtles, which have few offspring, are slow-moving and late in maturing, are particularly susceptible to human-related extinction.
Missouri has 17 species of turtles, including the ornate and three-toed box turtles. They can be differentiated mainly by carapace (top shell) coloration. Ornates, as their names suggest, have more elaborate shells with orange and yellow lines on a dark background. Three-toed turtles have dull brown-green carapaces that may or may not have yellow line patterns. However, the two species can interbreed to create hybrid individuals. Their age can be estimated by counting the growth rings on the carapace; these turtles can live more than 50 years. Their preferred habitats are prairies, forests, and glades.
BACKGROUND: The Saint Louis Zoo’s WildCare Institute Center for Conservation in Forest Park is a multi-faceted program that uses the Zoo’s campus of Forest Park for the study of native wildlife and for conservation education. Wildlife conservation projects focus on native wildlife ecology and management in an urban park. Projects are conducted in cooperation with Forest Park Forever, the St. Louis Department of Parks and the sister institutions of the Zoo Museum District. Through its WildCare Institute, the Zoo focuses on wildlife management and recovery, conservation science, and support of the human populations that coexist with wildlife in 12 conservation hotspots around the globe, including three in Missouri. www.stlzoo.org/wildcareinstitute
The Zoo’s Institute for Conservation Medicine focuses on research of diseases that affect the conservation of threatened and endangered wildlife species. Scientists study the origin, movement and risk factors associated with diseases so that we can better understand the impact of diseases on the conservation of wildlife populations; understand the links between the health of zoo animals and wildlife populations; and understand the movement of diseases between wildlife, domestic animals and humans. www.stlzoo.org/conservationmedicine
Washington University's Tyson Research Center cites the following as its mission: to provide a living landscape for environmental research and education as a component of Washington University's International Center for Advanced Renewable Energy and Sustainability (I-CARES) at www.i-cares.wustl.edu. Tyson provides a landscape-scale experimental venue for studies on ecosystem sustainability; a 2,000-acre outdoor laboratory for important research and teaching opportunities for Washington University and other nearby institutions; and research and educational opportunities for undergraduate and graduate students.
Forest Park Forever is a private, not-for-profit organization founded in 1986 to work in partnership with the City of St. Louis and the Department of Parks, Recreation and Forestry to restore, maintain and sustain Forest Park as one of America’s great urban public parks for the enjoyment of all – now and forever. Learn more at www.forestparkforever.org.
South City Preparatory Academy is dedicated to helping urban youth through innovative educational strategies. In 2010, this academy was the recipient of a Walton Family Foundation Public Charter School Start-Up grant and one of only two St Louis schools to earn a 2011 Federal Charter Schools Program grant. In fall 2010, the University Of Missouri-St Louis became the authorizer/sponsor for South City Prep. Located at 2900 South Grand Boulevard, South City Prep opened its doors to serve 5th and 6th graders in August of 2011 and is adding a 7th grade class in August of 2012. For more, visit www.southcityprep.org.