Research into the ornate box turtle population in southern Will County got a helpful assist from Lakewood Animal Hospital in Morris.
Becky Blankenship, wildlife ecologist for the Forest Preserve District, is studying the ornate box turtle population to determine how to manage Forest Preserve land to protect them. The turtles are state threatened, and Blankenship said the research will help ascertain whether the population is stable.
“This research will help us form a better understanding not only of our ornate box turtle population’s size, demographics, population viability, habitat use and reproductive status, but also how we can help,” Blankenship said.
In the spring, Blankenship and other Forest Preserve staff utilized the assistance of turtle-sniffing dogs to find ornate box turtles in a Will County preserve. Those turtles were then outfitted with transmitters that will allow Blankenship to closely track them for several years.
“Since we have only been finding mature adult box turtles, we are concerned that the population may not even be reproducing,” she said, adding this could simply be a matter of the turtles being difficult to find or, more likely, because the turtles’ nests are being preyed on by other animals before the eggs can hatch.
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Among the turtles outfitted with transmitters are several females, and the Lakewood Animal Hospital staff, including Dr. Michael Miller, provided radiographs, or X-rays, of the females to determine if they were gravid, or carrying eggs.
“We X-rayed the females every two weeks to see if they were carrying eggs,” Blankenship said. “We were able to determine that three of our females were gravid, which is exciting news!”
Miller said turtles can be challenging patients because of their shells, which makes everything they need to do to them, including exams and X-rays, more difficult. Their shells cause more interference in the images than hair or skin do, which affects the clarity of the images.
He said this makes it more difficult to interpret images of a turtle’s internal organs, but an exception to this is eggs, which can still be easily seem in turtle radiographs.
“Even though turtles have softer eggshells than birds, turtle eggshells still contain calcium – just like bones – so they appear white in the image,” Miller said. “When looking for eggs on a turtle’s radiograph, we are looking for thin white lines in an oval shape with a clear center.”
Miller said normal X-rays are sufficient for viewing eggs in turtles, but they are lucky to have recently installed a new digital X-ray machine at the animal hospital that allows for more detailed images of smaller exotic animals.
“This allowed us to get some great images of these turtles for this project,” he said.
Miller’s assistance in Blankenship’s research may seem unusual for an animal hospital veterinarian, but Miller sees exotic pets in addition to cats and dogs. He and his colleague Dr. Stephen Carter both have an interest in reptiles and include turtles among their patients, and they also sometimes see turtles at the animal hospital that have shell injuries as a result of being hit by cars.
“We currently have several box turtle patients,” Miller said. “Some of them are very cooperative for us, but some like to completely close up in their shell when they see us — making our job of examining them a bit more difficult!”
Animals do not always make cooperative subjects for X-rays. However, Miller and the animal hospital staff have some tricks up their sleeves for getting quality images from animals of all kinds, including these ornate box turtles.
“For these ladies, we were able to place each of them in a small plastic box to prevent them from walking off the X-ray table,” Miller said. “This allowed us to achieve our goal of getting good images without stressing the turtles out too much or needing to sedate them.”
For Blankenship, knowing the females are carrying eggs is significant because it means the population is at least attempting to reproduce.
“We have observed several pairs of turtles during copulation, but that doesn’t mean the females will produce eggs,” she said. “Females can store sperm for years if the conditions aren’t suitable to lay eggs.”
So far, Blankenship has not found nesting locations for the gravid females, but she hopes to have more female box turtles to X-ray in the future because it would allow for a better sample size to provide more accurate estimates of average clutch size, pregnancy rate and hatchling survival rates.
The X-rays provided by Lakewood Animal Hospital allowed Blankenship to collect data she wouldn’t have otherwise had and better focus her and her team’s efforts.
“It allowed us to work smarter, not harder, since we could focus our nightly nest search efforts on the gravid females for the two weeks they carried eggs,” Blankenship said.
Because of how it has aided her research, she’s particularly appreciative of Lakewood Animal Hospital and Dr. Miller for their assistance.
“I am so grateful to Dr. Miller, the technicians and staff at Lakewood Animal Hospital for being so absolutely wonderful to work with,” she said. “It is very obvious that they are passionate about turtle conservation and have been an incredible help with this project.”
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