ST. LOUIS — Which are healthier, city turtles or country turtles? Researchers at the St. Louis Zoo and Washington University are tracking 20 box turtles in their natural habitats, half in Forest Park in west St. Louis, and half in the Tyson Research Center in rural St. Louis County to find out.
Veterinarians and scientists started following the turtles' movements and taking blood samples in the spring as the reptiles emerged from hibernation. It's unknown how many box turtles live in the area, although they are native to Missouri.
The Box Turtle Project grew from a passion for the giant tortoises of the Galapagos Islands, located off the Pacific coast of Ecuador, where Dr. Sharon Deem and her husband, biologist Stephen Blake, have spent years on research studies.
Two years ago, the couple visited some friends in St. Louis who kept a turtle in their bathroom that they had "rescued" from Forest Park.
"We realized this must happen a lot to box turtles that are native to Forest Park and Missouri and maybe not taken care of properly," said Deem, director of the zoo's Institute for Conservation Medicine.
Deem grew curious about the lifestyle of the local turtles, which she said "can be a good indicator of ecosystems and used as sentinels because they are one of a few species that live on oceans, rivers and land. It seemed like very little work had been done with our turtles here in the Midwest to understand their conservation and health status."
Deem was especially interested to learn whether the box turtle populations here were contracting diseases seen in reptiles on the East Coast. Other threats to the turtles' habitat include cars, development and predatory animals.
The researchers hope to learn more about the turtles' stress levels by monitoring their hormones and measuring for toxin exposures, including pesticides. Researchers are curious whether the stress hormones are higher in turtles who live near golf courses or heavily trafficked areas versus more rural or wooded areas. The results can then indicate any environmental threats to watch out for in other animals and people.
At least once a week the researchers find the 20 turtles with radio tracking devices that receive signals from tags fitted on the turtles' shells. In one case, they learned that a turtle at Tyson Research Center, named Queen Mum, had moved half a kilometer in eight days toward a river basin where they think she wants to lay her eggs.
The researchers were helped Wednesday by fifth- and sixth-grade students from the Eco Club at South City Preparatory Academy, a year-round charter school in St. Louis. The students listened for beeps transmitted by the turtles' tags and trekked through wooded areas of Forest Park before spotting several turtles, including one that had not been tagged.
The education component of the project is aimed at exposing kids to nature to inspire them to be good stewards.
"For the majority of them, the great outdoors is Tower Grove Park," said their science teacher, Michelle Keeter. "In terms of understanding how their actions are impacting their environment, it's a leap they can't make unless they experience it."
The students helped identify the turtles' genders — males have bright, reddish eyes, and females have brown eyes. They learned the proper names for the reptiles' anatomy, such as carapace for the upper shell and plastron for the lower shell. When the turtles were spotted, the younger students watched as interns measured and weighed the animals.
"I like going on adventures," said Micah Braboy, 11, while on the hunt for Jewel, the turtle named for the park's Jewel Box. "I don't like to sit all day."
Amelia Broussard got credit for spotting the 6-inch-wide Jewel, who had blended in with the leaves and branches.
"I just looked down, and it was right there," she said.
The research project is funded with $10,000 from the zoo's conservation programs. Deem said they hope to raise more money to expand the program to include more turtles and to outfit them with GPS tracking devices that can download data directly to a computer.
In Forest Park, the turtles prefer to hang out in Kennedy Forest, a forest in the southwest corner of the park, and in the prairie river area. They move around more during the cooler hours of mornings and evenings.
While the turtles are not endangered, people who have lived around St. Louis for many years have noticed a decline in spotting the creatures wandering around neighborhoods, Deem said.
When turtles are spotted, people should be careful not to touch them unless it's to move them to the side of the road. Deem hopes the turtles can serve as our ambassadors to nature.
"I haven't met one person who doesn't like turtles," she said.