October 12, 2015

By Christopher Robinette, Sharon L. Deem, Jamie Palmer
Institute for Conservation Medicine

In May 2013, we had the great pleasure of meeting Georgette, one of many box turtles in Forest Park.

She is part of the St. Louis Box Turtle Project that began in 2011, when the Saint Louis Zoo Institute for Conservation Medicine and collaborators began studying box turtle ecology and health. Our goal is to better understand environmental factors that may affect humans and animals alike.

When we met Georgette, we gave her a little tracking device that she carries on her back so we can follow her movements within Forest Park.

In June 2014, we noticed Georgette wasn't feeling so well. She was showing clinical signs of an upper respiratory tract infection—a turtle cold! She had discharge coming from her nose and eyes. She stopped moving around her patch of woods and started to lose weight. Swabs collected from her mouth and cloaca (bottom orifice) confirmed what we expected: Georgette was diagnosed with a Mycoplasma spp. infection. Mycoplasmosis in turtles can last for weeks, if not months, and may even cause death.

During the next few weeks, on our daily "vet checks," we would find her basking in the sun, even when temperatures reached over 100°F and all the other turtles were keeping cool in the shade. This was a great example of self-healing since turtles use heat to fend off infections.

However, we began to notice something interesting. Within a month after feeling sick, Georgette moved almost 1,000 feet (across two paved roads) from her home forest patch. Although this bold move surprised us, other turtle species have recently been documented to move outside their home territories, like Georgette did, when infected with Mycoplasma spp.

By the fall of 2014 Georgette was feeling much better. Her clinical signs had cleared up, and her weight and behavior improved.

We thought Georgette was home free after fighting off the infection. Not long after her big move to this new forest patch in October 2014, we noticed that her front left limb was missing. We diagnosed predator attack. Once again we were concerned for Georgette! But, she took her health seriously and did what she does best: Georgette was able to treat herself. During the rainy summer months of 2015, we would often find her soaking in streams, possibly as a form of self-medication.

In no time at all, the swelling around her leg went down and the amputation site healed up. Now her leg looks wonderful! We often find her eating May apples, and she seems content in her new home in Kennedy Woods. She has made great progress and overcome serious health challenges, proving that turtles can be very resilient. Georgette truly is "the turtle who lived"!