Koda the Turtle Dog’s Big Success

posted in: Local Conservation, Turtles | 1

One of the toughest things about working with wild animals is often finding them in the first place! Turtles are no exception – all of our native turtle species make use of camouflage to protect themselves from predators, which also makes it difficult for us to find them when we go looking. Attaching a radio transmitter to a turtle lets us track them more easily, but before we can do that, we need to catch the turtle for the first time. At some sites, we can trap for turtles, especially aquatic turtles that will follow the scent of fish into our hoop traps. Eastern box turtles, though, are almost entirely land-bound, which makes them very difficult to trap. Their camouflage in the woodland and scrubby environments they favor is also top-notch. 

A box turtle's shell is just visible beneath a decaying tree stump, where its patterning matches the flaking bark and leaf litter all around it.
Box turtles can be hard to spot in the wild, as they often wedge themselves into crevices, passing themselves off as rocks, or else bury themselves entirely in the leaf litter.

So, what’s a biologist to do? Recruit some specialized help! Box turtles may have excellent visual camouflage, but there’s more than one way to find a turtle, and across all of our field sites, most predators on our young turtles are mammals hunting by scent rather than vision – otters, raccoons, and coyotes. If we could get one of these super-sniffers to help us find turtles to protect them rather than eat them, we’d probably find a lot more turtles! Enter Koda, Zoo New England’s professional Turtle Dog.

A dark brown Australian shepherd mix dog with light brown makings on her face and a beadwork collar sits looking at the camera amidst a patch of red fall huckleberry bushes.

Koda is a lively three-year-old Australian shepherd mix who was chosen as a puppy, adopted by ZNE zookeeper Christine Dumbleton and trained by Chris Bartos, an Assistant Curator in our Animal Care department. Together with our Field Conservation box turtle specialist Julie Lisk, Koda’s team have worked together to teach her the scent of box turtles and give her the opportunity to practice in the field. 

The road hasn’t always been an easy one – Koda is bright and willing to learn, but her puppy energy limited the amount of time she could focus on learning the ins and outs of turtle tracking. The pandemic made it difficult to arrange field time with Koda, and when she came back covered in ticks from one of her training trips, ZNE staff invested in a special permethrin-treated doggie work vest for her to wear while tracking. Nonetheless, Koda and Julie have logged lots of hours of field time, and Koda has become skilled at following Julie while she radiotracks box turtles. Once Julie leads them to the right general area, Koda does the rest, ferreting out the turtles wherever they might hide. When she succeeds in finding a turtle, Koda gets playtime and lots of treats as a reward (she especially loves hot dog!). Julie also recently completed an intensive course from the Center for Wildlife Studies focused on the use of scent detection dogs in conservation research. See Koda hot on the trail in the video below!

The brown-and-yellow speckled shell of a new male box turtle at our Dunstable site, found by Koda.
Koda’s new box turtle discovery.

Last week, Koda and Julie hit a new milestone – for the first time ever, Koda discovered a new wild box turtle that our staff had never seen before! This adult male has likely been in the area for many years, but despite hundreds of field hours logged by trained biologists, no one had managed to find this individual before Koda did. If Koda can continue tracking down new individuals as well as helping us re-find the ones we’ve found before, we’ll be able to make more accurate estimates of population size and better protect this population of rare turtles.

If you’ve got any words of encouragement for the fuzziest member of our turtle team, be sure to leave them in the comments! All of us (including Koda) thrive on positive reinforcement.

  1. Mary Morgan

    How thrilling for the trainers and handler to see their hard work and patience pay off. Here’s to finding many more turtles.