Dogs, turtles, biology mix for Cornell summer research

Three biology student researchers received some help this summer from a team of turtle-finding dogs.

This year marked the 16th year of the research on the ornate box turtle, which is native in Iowa. It’s also a threatened species due to environmental changes, predators, and poaching.

For the past several years the research has focused on discovering more about the turtles since very little is known about the species. Specifically, the research is digging deeper into understanding why the box turtles are so colorful.

The goal of the project is to determine what the males do that are most reproductively successful.

To do that, the researchers need to gather and study as much of the turtle population as possible. The team has used drift fences to capture turtles for a short period of time before returning them to the wild. This year, they were able to work with Montana’s John Rucker and his team of turtle-finding dogs.

“I usually run my dogs about three or four hours in the morning when it’s cool and the turtles are moving and there’s turtle scent on the ground,” Rucker said. “Turtles actually leave a very minute scent trail on the grass, and my dogs lock in on that trail and they are like bloodhounds, they find it and very gently pick it up and bring it back to me.”

Lizzy Ott ’21, John Regis ’20, and Lily Ullenius ’20 are working on the research project this summer. They enjoyed watching the dogs find 42 turtles in one day. That’s about twice as many as the 2018 team found in the entire summer. 

(Left to right) John Regis ’20, Lily Ullenius ’20, and Lizzy Ott ’21 are working with Professor Andyu McCollum this summer.
(Left to right) John Regis ’20, Lily Ullenius ’20, and Lizzy Ott ’21

“It was so much fun,” Ott said. “It’s amazing they can do their thing and sniff out these turtles from wherever they are. We now have a ton of turtles to process which is really great.”

The students take the turtles back to the lab to measure, photograph, and collect DNA samples. The DNA will help build the family tree. The researchers use GPS devices to mark each turtle’s location and the turtles are returned right back to where they found them within a day or two.

The photographs are important because the researchers wants to create a genetic story for all of the turtles. “Once we have the blood work for the genetics, we can figure out who it is related to and how many offspring it has had. So we might be able to figure out are these brighter turtles, the ones who are having more offspring or is it, maybe, the more dull-colored turtles,” Ullenius said.

The team is also using a UV-Vis reflectance spectrometer, studying the reptiles’ patterns beyond what the human eye can see.

“We are looking to see if the color pattern has to do with reproductive success,” Regis said. “The UV spectrum is another way for us to analyze that. We just hold the spectrometer up against their shell or up against their head. Then we copy the data and put it into a spreadsheet, so it really only takes a few seconds.”

Lily Ullenius ’20 taking photos of turtles
Lily Ullenius ’20 taking photos of turtles

The more data the team can collect, the more answers they will have. They hope their work will help discover more about this poorly understood species, potentially finding answers to keep the threatened population growing. Rucker says this research team is lucky too because they have a great research area in Johnson County.

“I know all of the sites,” Rucker said. “I have worked my dogs on the Wisconsin ornate box turtle sites, I have worked them on all of the Illinois ornate box turtle tracts. This one right here in Iowa is the best in the Midwest, in my opinion.”