Lee Richardson Zoo has been working hard to help document ornate box turtle populations in Finney County. For the last three months, staff and volunteers have been participating in research to look for and document box turtles in our area.

This project extends beyond Finney County though. The seven Association of Zoos and Aquariums (AZA) accredited zoos in Kansas are working on this project. Under the leadership of the Topeka Zoo, each of these organizations are gathering information about ornate box turtle populations in their respective counties.

The reason that Topeka Zoo started this project was because of how often they hear reports from the public about how box turtles are not as common as they used to be. While community feedback is a useful tool for monitoring local wildlife, there is no concrete proof that the ornate box turtle population has been declining. If these observations are accurate, then protections can be implemented to help safeguard this species, but these actions can’t take place without data to validate the informal observations.

To answer this population question, Kansas zoos are each working on getting more data for the number of turtles in their county. When you do the math, this is an amazing amount of work! We're talking about hours of manpower each month looking for turtles.

Each facility is working at two study sites in their county. The first is a known site where box turtles have been spotted in the past. The second is an unknown site, containing ideal turtle habitat, but with no reports of turtles being spotted there. Our team has visited the Finney County sites multiple times now, and we have found great data.

Based on reports from many Garden City residents, box turtles are spotted all over town. Due to these reports, we thought for sure we would find turtles at our unknown site. To date, we have found zero turtles at the unknown location. While it is disappointing to have found no turtles at this site, it reveals important information about habitats turtles are avoiding in urban areas. Not all habitats are created equal, and just because we know there is food, water, shelter, and space available does not mean it is where turtles will choose to live.

Absent species from a habitat can be very important information as well. The project coordinators will study the site further and work to deduce why turtles are not utilizing this area. If the 2019 field season continues to reflect no turtles in that space, we’ll select a new unknown site for the 2020 field season. By switching locations, we hope that we will gather more information on where urban box turtles choose to live.

Every time we visit a site, we walk the property following specific guidelines set by the leadership team in Topeka. These rules help ensure that the data is collected in the same manner across all seven teams. As we look through the tall grass and under plants, we are constantly looking for the oval-shaped shell of the turtle.

We have had success at this site, with multiple turtle sightings. When we locate a turtle, we take full morphometric measurements, recording as many physical details about the turtle as possible. We mark them, so if we recapture them in the future, we can track any physical changes. Just like there are rules established on how we look for the turtles, there are rules on how we handle, measure, and mark the turtles.

So far, we have documented four turtles at the known site. We are excited to see how many other turtles we meet and follow the lives of the turtles we re-capture this year and into the future. If you are interested in the work we are doing and want to help, you can report where you spy box turtles in Kansas. Whenever you encounter a box turtle, record when you found them, where this was, time of day, and weather conditions, then send this information to kansasboxturtleproject@gmail.com. By submitting your turtle observations, you will help grow our data on where turtles are found in Kansas.


Catie Policastro is the conservation education specialist at Lee Richardson Zoo.