The turtles have become endangered because farms have been encroaching on their property. They need tall grass to live and little of it is left.
“The ornate box turtles are a really important part of the prairie ecosystem, which once covered the majority of states like Illinois, Iowa, Missouri, Nebraska, and Kansas,” said Elizabeth Bach, ecosystem restoration scientist for Nachusa Grasslands. “With settlement from European settlers, most of that land was converted to agriculture practices. The result is we’ve lost over 99 percent of the historic range of that tall grass prairie here in Illinois. Species like the ornate box turtle really suffer from that. They no longer have habitat and they need space to move around.”
The goal for scientists at Nachusa Grasslands is to restore the tall-grass prairie. That’s where the turtles come in handy.
These turtles are small in size but they play a big role in diagnosing the land they live on.
“Turtles can tell us a really interesting story,” Dr. Allender, stated. “The health of the turtle is representative of the health of the environment. They utilize everything in their environments for their health. Turtles in poor health are representative of poor environmental conditions.”
Once the turtles are found, some of the students will tag the location where the turtle is found while the other students examine the species briefly to determine if it’s a recapture or a new turtle discovered. They place the turtle in a breathable canvas bag before it’s examined further.
“We’ll do physical examinations, looking at the eyes, ears, nose, throat, and look at the condition of the shell,” said Dr. Allender. “All of these things are indicators of how they’re utilizing the environment, and their overall health and wellness.”
The interest in the ornate box turtles reaches beyond Illinois. In other Midwestern states like Iowa, biologists say studying this particular turtle is key in preventing the loss of a single species, which can upset the ecosystem.
“There’s been a number of reports recently about the number of species that are expected to go extinct […]biologists have been talking about species loss for a long time,” said Andy McCollum, professor of biology at Cornell College. “I think a lot of people think that there is no economic benefit to having a viable population of native species. But we need a working environment for all of the various ecosystem services that are provided for things like clean water and clean air. So, these turtles are perhaps a very small part of researching that.”
With the help of Rucker and his dogs, conservationists’ groups like Nashua Grasslands are trying to bring back some of what they say this region lost.
“It’s just a labor of love,” Rucker said. “For me, I love dog work and it gives me a reason to try to stay a young man, even though I’m 71 years old. It’s sort of the driving force in my life right now. I hope to leave the world a little bit better place through my turtle work.”
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