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Coe researchers use trained spaniels to find threatened turtles
Montana man uses trained dogs to locate the turtles
NORTH LIBERTY — John Rucker and his five “super dogs” are helping research through Coe College to measure the number of ornate box turtles in the Hawkeye Wildlife Management Area.
Rucker, 74, is a retired high school teacher from North Carolina and lives off-grid in Montana. He has bred and trained Boykin spaniels to sniff out and retrieve turtles for over 20 years, he said.
Rucker’s dogs tracked down 22 turtles on Saturday and eight on Friday.
“I love to do this. Sometimes I can’t sleep I’m so eager to get out to start working with my dogs again,” he said while walking behind his off-leash dogs on the research site Saturday. “Turtle hunting, you think ‘oh, boring,’ but it’s fast. They are thinking and evaluating.”
Rucker starts training his dog litters before their eyes open as puppies, he said.
“I put turtle shells in their whelping box so the first thing they ever smell is turtle,” he said.
The research is led by Daniel Hughes, a Coe College assistant professor of biology. Hughes said his team worked with Rucker to get turtles until Monday.
Ornate box turtles are a threatened species in Iowa, according to the Iowa Department of Natural Resources.
Hughes said the dogs allow his team to get the data needed to understand the demographic trajectory and population viability of the ornate box turtle species.
“The dogs are the best surveyors. You just can’t get the same kind of numbers with people,” Hughes said. “It's not like the turtles aren’t here, it is just really hard to find them.”
Hughes said University of Iowa professor Neil Bernstein and Cornell College biology professor Andy McCollum handed off their research to Hughes. Their research started in 1992.
After one of the five spaniels finds a turtle, it runs to Rucker with the turtle’s shell in its mouth, and a research assistant puts the turtle in a cloth bag for surveying.
“Here’s a turtle! Skeeter strikes again,” Rucker said after his dog, Skeeter, ran to him through thick brush with a turtle in her mouth. “She’s out there hunting her head off all by herself.”
Hughes takes a measurement and a photo of every turtle and makes a small notch in its shell for identification, he said. After surveying, the turtles are returned where they were found by the dogs.
Other than researching the demographic area of the turtles, Hughes said his team also will bring ornate box turtles to a lab to see how bold or shy the species is.
“The trial we run for boldness is we put them in a cave, an enclosed area that represents safety, and we give them 10 minutes to determine if they come out of it,” he said.
Jaclyn Hughes, a research assistant, went on a research expedition with Rucker with a University of Illinois researcher and now helps survey the turtles in Iowa.
“Turtles have been around for such a long time, but we still don’t know a whole lot about them,” she said. “It is really important to gather baseline data so that we can see how land management and how human pressure is affecting their populations.”
In observation of turtle research for over two decades, Rucker said his dogs have shown that turtles are gregarious, living in clusters rather than in solitude.
“We found three right here and three right there. … Everyone thought that turtles were these solitary creatures, but now we know they like to hang out together,” he said.
After completing research in Iowa, Rucker will drive to Illinois with his dogs to do more turtle hunting for research. He said he is the only person he knows who breeds dogs to hunt for turtles.
“I am the only one, and my years are limited,” he said.
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