Turtle dogs provide valuable environmental service at Allison Woods Outdoor Learning Center
Turtle dog Possum shows off his tracking abilities at the J. Hoyt Hayes Troutman Library.
BY DEBBIE PAGE
For its recent Maker Monday activity, J.Hoyt Hayes Memorial Troutman Library welcomed the Allison Woods Outdoor Learning Center turtle dog Possum and his handlers Dennis Goodin and Paige Jackson shared information about North Carolina’s state reptile, the Eastern Box Turtle.
Goodin detailed this land-dwelling turtle’s habitat, food chain, predator/prey relationships, and part in a healthy ecosystem. He also explained how the center’s turtle dogs are vital in the preservation and conservation process.
Possum is a nearly 4-year-old Boykin Spaniel, which was originally bred for hunting wild turkeys and ducks in the Wateree River Swamp of South Carolina. However, Possum and his sister Kizzy were trained to find and gently bring box turtles to their handlers.
The “Turtle dog” concept began 14 years ago when a retired biology teacher was picking up box turtles and admiring them. His dog Buster, noticing his master’s interest, then brought him a turtle.
He praised the dog and returned the turtle back into the woods, but the dog soon returned with another and another, in the process helped rewrite the history of turtle research in America.
Before the Turtle Dogs, researchers found it nearly impossible to obtain a solid read on turtle population numbers in forests.
The AWOLC dogs continue the work of the original turtle dogs at their center, collecting valuable information for researchers and environmental caretakers.
Goodin said that before turtle dogs, 25 people could spend a day in the woods looking for box turtles with little success. “On a good day, they would find five to seven box turtles, tops. Now we can take two two turtle dogs, spend half a day, and easily find between 15 and 25 turtles.”
Possum’s counterpart has found as many as 17 in a single day.
The dog, when finding the turtle, will flip it over on its back and with a “soft mouth” gently bring the turtle to a handler, not hurting the turtle. After noting where it was found, taking its weight and measurements, checking its health, and giving it an identifying marker, the staff returns it to its original location.
If discovered again, the turtles go through the same process to create a record of its growth and health. All of the information collected is put into a database for researchers to access.
The staff trains the dogs using resin turtles covered with box turtle scent to keep their skills sharp. They also use the resin turtles when making presentations to school groups.
The dogs, who love their work, get only praise as a reward instead of treats, added Goodin.
After the presentation, young audience members got the opportunity to hide resin turtles in the library’s lawn area and watch Possum do his work. He quickly put his nose to the ground, tracked the turtles down, and took them to Jackson.
Goodin explained that the top of a box turtle’s shell is the carapace and the bottom is the plastron. Both shells are made of fused bone. The turtle’s vertebrae, making up the spinal cord, is actually fused to its shell. The box turtle is one of the few turtles that can completely close itself in.
By counting the turtle’s rings in its scutes along the top of the shell, the researchers can determine its age since it adds a ring each year.
He noted that females have a flatter plastron to allow more room for egg production, usually one to eight eggs at a time, which they will leave in a hole to hatch in the next 75 to 120 days. Cooler weather will result in more males, while warmer temperatures will yield more females.
When mature, the females are dull brown, but the males usually have a reddish orange or bright yellow color.
The babies are about the size of a quarter and are vulnerable to predators until their shells are fully hardened in their first three to five years of life. Fortunately, their center has a healthy population that is replenishing itself. The box turtle can live over 100 years, with the oldest found at AWOLC estimated to be in its mid-90s.
Goodin warned people to leave aquatic turtles, especially snapping turtles, alone, since a six-inch diameter one has the ability to quickly snap a finger off. “They have the same bite power as an alligator,” he said.
The Eastern Box Turtle is an opportunistic eater that likes leafy vegetation and fruit, according to Goodin. Since they emerge from hibernation during the spring, people start seeing them out this time of the year on sidewalks and roads looking for food.
If someone sees a box turtle in or near the road and wants to help, Goodin said to pick it up by the sides and move it across the road in the direction it was heading. If injured, the finder can contact the N.C. Wildlife Resources Commission for contact information for a local rehabber.
Jackson said feeding tomatoes to a turtle with a shell injury will help it rebuild its shell quicker. A substance in the tomatoes helps promote shell regeneration and healing.
Goodin also noted that box turtles are an indicator species. If they start appearing sick or disappear from an area, that situation indicates to researchers and scientists that an environmental problem exists that needs to be investigated.
FOR MORE INFORMATION
To learn more about turtle dogs or other wildlife programs, to schedule a visit, or learn about children’s spring break learning camp information, visit AWOLC’s website at https://www.allisonwoodsoutdoorlearningcenter.com