In March of this year, Lee Richardson Zoo joined a group effort to study Kansas ornate box turtle populations in cooperation with other AZA accredited Kansas zoos. Together, we hope to find out if populations are remaining steady, increasing, or declining over three years in seven different counties.
During the 2019 field season, Lee Richardson Zoo studied two sites in Finney County. Our first site, our “unknown”, is a plot of land that seems like it would support ornate box turtles but has no reports of them being spotted there. We’ve visited this site twice a month since April, and we have no documentation that turtles are using this area. While many people would be disappointed by this lack of results, we find this fascinating. The fact that ornate box turtles, which are so common in Finney County, are not using this land inspires us to ask questions.
Why are turtles not found at our “unknown” site, but are seen in surrounding land plots? Is this caused by previous construction projects near the area? Loud noises and construction vehicles in the area could have caused the turtles to feel that this was an unsafe habitat and caused them to move away. Is this area the wrong soil type? If the soil is too compacted, then the turtles might struggle to dig holes to lay their eggs in or make it difficult for them to dig down into the soil for their winter dormancy. In science, the absence of data can be just as interesting as a bounty of data.
Our second study site, our “known” location, is where we have received reports that ornate box turtles are regularly spotted. This site did not disappoint! During each visit, we walk in straight lines, called transects, across our established field site. Once a turtle is spotted, we start documenting as much as possible. We use a GPS to mark the exact location where the turtle was found, note the weather conditions, record full body measurements, and take a complete set of photographs. Finally, we use a standardized marking method, the North American notch code, that permanently identifies the individual without causing harm. By marking each individual that we find, future data sets will be connected across the three-year project for individual turtles.
Following the established study protocols, we have identified ten individual turtles at our “known” site. One individual was found on four different study dates, and we have data showing how he’s grown across the season. We were also lucky enough to find turtle eggs at this site! All of these findings are indicators of a strong population of ornate box turtles at this location.
The findings gathered in Finney County for 2019 will be compiled by the Topeka Zoo and added to the results from the six other participating counties. In the spring of 2020, zoo staff and volunteers will head back into the field to pick-up studying our “known” site and start studying a new “unknown” site. If this project sounds interesting and you would like to help, please email Julianne Werts, firstname.lastname@example.org, to find out more about volunteering with Lee Richardson Zoo.
Catie Policastro is the conservation education specialist at Lee Richardson Zoo.