Location: Forest Park and Tyson Research Center
Species: Box Turtles (Terrapene spp.)
Priority: High

Background

The Zoo's Institute for Conservation Medicine and its partners are studying box turtle health to better understand environmental factors that may be affecting the health of wildlife and humans alike. This program provides a database which will help to showcase the value of box turtles as sentinels for health issues.

The Zoo and its partners launched the Box Turtle Project in the spring of 2012 as turtles were coming out of hibernation. The project is led by Zoo and Washington University scientists, working closely with college and high school students, and engaging elementary school age students to get out into nature. Using box turtles as the ambassadors, we aim to get young people to better understand ecosystems in Missouri while appreciating just "getting dirty" and enjoying the natural world.

To begin this pilot project, 20 turtles—10 in Forest Park and 10 at Washington University's Tyson Research Center—were fitted with radio tags (VHF) that emit unique frequencies so they can be tracked. Turtles that received VHF tags and those that did not were marked with small V-shaped notches on their upper shells (the carapace) to provide individual identification. The students also helped scientists gather weekly mapping data points, body weights and veterinary checks.

Over the 2012 field season, the team marked and visually examined 85 turtles and collected biomaterials from 50 individuals. Blood drawn from the turtles in both rural and urban areas was analyzed for corticosterone levels (a stress-related hormone), in addition to other indicators of disease. In the preliminary data drawn from comparing and contrasting the movement patterns and health status of rural and urban turtles, urban turtles showed smaller home range sizes and higher levels of stress hormones.

See video.

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St. Louis Interest

Many St. Louis citizens may not know that wild, native box turtles are residents of Forest Park in the heart of the city, or that turtle numbers are probably declining throughout the state of Missouri due to road kills, habitat loss and possibly disease. Although the conservation status of box turtles in Missouri is not well-understood, scientists believe they are in trouble in both urban and rural areas.

Goal

The goal of this project is to promote conservation of urban and rural box turtles in the St. Louis area by improving our understanding of the ranging patterns, ecology and health status of these delightful animals, and by developing an education and outreach program to increase awareness of the need to save turtles. The goal is also to compare and contrast the health status, movement behavior, and abundance of adult box turtles between the urban Forest Park and the rural Tyson Research Center turtle populations.

Conservation Science

Understanding the health of wildlife populations is increasingly seen as a critical part of conservation. In this pilot study, health assessments are conducted on turtles, including a physical exam to document any lesions or abnormal clinical signs as well as bodyweight, measurements and general condition. A small blood sample and cloaca and choanae swabs are collected to determine blood parameters and exposures to pathogens. In addition, the group studied migration patterns of the turtles with preliminary results showing that the turtles moved great distances over a few weeks.

Partners

Forest Park Forever
Max Planck Institute for Ornithology
Washington University Tyson Research Center