For these dogs, turtle hunt is a shell game

turtledogs1At the command, “Findturtlefindturtlefindturtle,” Jenny Ren and Mink thrashed through the underbrush at Eno River State Park Saturday with singular determination and an unbounded joy in the chase.

In just a bit over 30 minutes, Mink returned, carefully carrying a box turtle in his jaws and obviously pleased with himself. He dropped it at the feet of John Rucker, rewarded only with impressed comments from about a dozen park visitors who witnessed the demonstration.

Rucker and Boykin spaniels search for turtles in heavy brush,

Rucker and Boykin spaniels search for turtles in heavy brush,

The two Boykin spaniels are from a pack of 10 that Rucker has trained to find box turtles. Rucker brought the good-natured dogs from his Greensboro home to a reptile and amphibian program at the park and they were the stars of the event.

Bird hunting with one of the spaniels years ago, Rucker discovered that they have a natural talent for finding the reclusive turtles and could be easily trained using scented, fiberglass turtle shells. Some have theorized that the “scent trail” left by a traveling turtle somewhat resembles the scent of game birds. At any rate, the dogs consider a turtle hunt just great sport.

For biologists, it’s more than sport. Populations of the eastern box turtle are declining everywhere and no one is sure why, although loss of habitat likely figures into it. In many eastern and midwestern states, including North Carolina, box turtle studies have begun in earnest. Outdoor lovers have been invited to get involved in “citizen science” projects by reporting box turtle encounters. At Eno River, a box turtle study was launched by the Eno River Association. On Saturday, naturalist Kat Walston was on hand to measure, weigh and mark the turtles found by the spaniels as part of that effort.

Naturalist Kat Walston gets help measuring box turtle for study sponsored by the Eno River Association

Naturalist Kat Walston gets help measuring box turtle for a study sponsored by the Eno River Association.

Rucker has carried his dogs as far afield as Wisconsin, where a similar decline in ornate box turtles has researchers worried. In Illinois, the dogs have tracked turtles that are battling a mysterious virus, and in Tennessee, they’ve helped study how well box turtles can survive heavy logging operations. A keen observer can learn much from the success – or failure – of a turtle hunt, Rucker told the park visitors. “You have to learn how turtles behave in order to learn how to protect them.”

Information about North Carolina’s citizen science effort to track box turtle populations can be found here.

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