City youth help St. Louis Zoo, WUSTL scientists study box turtles

Missouri has two species of box turtle, the Ornate box turtle (Terrapene ornata ornata) shown here and the Three-toed box turtle shown below. Box turtles get their name from a special hinge on the bottom part of their shell (the plastron) that allows them to close or “box up” as a form of protection against predators. Box turtles are omnivorous and typically eat worms, snails, berries, fungi, and arthropods. Because they have few offspring, are slow-moving and late in maturing, are particularly susceptible to human-related extinction. (Credit: Wikipedia Commons)

Sixteen St. Louis youth were in Forest Park today tracking box turtles, fitted with telemetry devices — all to help with a project aimed at studying box turtle movements and their health.

The 12- and 13-year-olds are participating in a pilot study designed by scientists from the Saint Louis Zoo and Washington University in St. Louis to document box turtle movements and their health status in urban and rural areas in and around St. Louis.

This study comes at a critical time as previous studies conducted across the globe show that many populations of turtles are being threatened by vehicles, habitat loss, and disease. However, the conservation status of box turtles in Missouri is not well-understood.

The Zoo and WUSTL launched the Box Turtle Project this spring as turtles were coming out of hibernation. To begin this pilot project, 20 turtles — 10 in Forest Park and eight at WUSTL’s Tyson Research Center — were fitted with radio tags that emit unique frequencies so they can be tracked over the coming year. In addition, the turtles have been marked with small, v-shaped notches on their upper shells to provide individual identification.

At the end of the pilot study, the scientists will compare data from urban (Forest Park) and rural (Tyson Research Center) turtle populations and use the results to develop a larger scale research program.

Many aspects of the box turtle project, particularly the combination of animal tracking research with outreach for school-age children, were initiated by Stephen Blake, PhD, a co-investigator on the project and visiting scientist at WUSTL, who is also coordinating an on-going study of the movements and ecology of giant tortoises on the Galapagos Islands ( On Galapagos, local school children are introduced to conservation by direct involvement in the research program.

“Through this study, the Forest Park box turtles, though they are 100 times smaller than their distant giant cousins in Galapagos, can offer a similar window into nature and conservation science for St. Louisans,” said Blake.

Led by Zoo and WUSTL cientists, students from the Ecology Club of South City Preparatory Academy will join three Washington University undergraduates in a search for some of the 10 Forest Park turtles that have been fitted with telemetry devices. They will use receivers to hear chirps from the small transmitters anchored on the backs of the tagged turtles. The students will also help scientists weigh each turtle and perform the weekly veterinary checks, as part of the health and movement ecology monitoring program.

The Three-toed turtle (Terrapene carolina triunguis) is named for the number of toes on its back feet. The official reptile of the state of Missouri, they are popular in the pet trade and so sometimes found far outside their home range. (Credit: Wikipedia Commons)

The WUSTL undergraduates are Joanna Wang, a rising senior majoring in environmental studies, Jenny Fung, a rising junior majoring in environmental biology and international sustainable development and Chika Akiyamamajoring in biology.

Meredith Hessling and Amber Stout, high school seniors who are participating in the Tyson Environmental Research Fellowship (TERF) program are also working on the turtle project.

The South City Preparatory Academy students have been preparing for the June 13 monitoring effort by discussing turtle biology and ecology and practicing tracking the turtles using plush toys equipped with radio tags.

“One of the most important goals of a conservation project, like this one, is to use all the natural wonder of Forest Park to develop empathy in children toward animals and nature,” said Alice Seyfried, curator of the Emerson Children’s Zoo and director of the Zoo’s WildCare Institute Center for Conservation in Forest Park, which is funding this study.

“We know from earlier studies that conservation-minded adults were likely to have spent time in nature as children and that playing in nature has a profound effect on childhood development.”

Sharon Deem, PhD, director of the Institute for Conservation Medicine, who is co-directing the research end of the study, said that blood drawn from the turtles in both rural and urban areas will be monitored for stress hormones, in addition to indicators of disease. “This pilot program will result in a database that may show the value of box turtles as sentinels for health issues that may affect both animal and human urban dwellers.

“Essentially, we are studying box turtle health to better understand environmental factors that may be affecting the health of wildlife and humans, alike,” she said, adding that another goal is to address the nature deficit seen in children today — a deficit that affects their health and well-being. This project involves environmental education, ecological and health sciences and offers a holistic approach that we believe will help us achieve strong conservation results.”

Partners in the project are Forest Park Forever, WUSTL’s Tyson Research Center, the Zoo’s WildCare Institute Center for Conservation in Forest Park and the Zoo’s Institute for Conservation Medicine.

This press release is based on one issued by the St. Louis Zoo.