St. Louis Box Turtle Project

July 31, 2017

The St. Louis Box Turtle Project Team, led by Dr. Sharon Deem who is a wildlife veterinarian and epidemiologist at the Saint Louis Zoo, tracks box turtles and studies their health to better understand environmental factors that may be affecting the health of wildlife and humans alike. It is a fun and exciting way to help connect young people with nature while gaining an understanding of what it means to co-exist with animals and the importance of keeping them from going extinct. Take for instance bats. According to Popular Science magazine, it is estimated that windmills and wind turbines kill between 600,000 and 900,000 bats every year. Although bats may not appeal to humans for several reasons, it is important that we understand their role. Bats eat mosquitoes that could possibly give us West Nile or the Zika virus, and they also help with pest control. The same thing goes for understanding plants such as invasive species and the effects they have on our local environment. Bees and colony collapse are another example. So, you can see the importance of co-existing with other species.  

It is an exciting time for young people who may be interested in environmental issues, as well as, the more traditional medicine – human or veterinary. Dr. Deem says, "Whether it's called One Health, One Medicine, Conservation Medicine, Planetary Health, etc., it is really just this concept that we need disciplines across the spectrum – including human doctors, veterinarians, environmental scientists, educators, economists, politicians, journalists – to help bring awareness to the challenges of species co-existing." The St. Louis Box Turtle Project helps bring awareness to local students by using Box Turtles as an outreach tool to introduce students to nature and to get them started thinking about our world and the importance of conservation. 

Using VHF technology, the St. Louis Box Turtle Project tracks box turtles in local Forest Park and Tyson Research Center. Currently, Dr. Deem says they have about 18 box turtles with trackers attached to their shell. 

Using VHF technology, the St. Louis Box Turtle Project tracks box turtles in local Forest Park and Tyson Research Center. Currently, Dr. Deem says they have about 18 box turtles with trackers attached to their shell.

Thanks to the St. Louis Box Turtle Project, students learn not only how to use telemetry and GPS, but also how to weigh the turtles, take measurements, observe the general condition of the turtles, and sample for some of the diseases the turtles might get. Speaking of box turtle health issues, be sure to read about Georgette and how she has overcome serious health challenges. 

Having lived in the Galapagos Islands for a time, Dr. Deem and her husband now travel there for 4-6 weeks each summer to help save the giant tortoises and iguanas. Dr. Deem was actually in the Galapagos Islands when she so graciously interviewed with me. Dr. Deem was really excited because this is the first year that one of the local St. Louis educators has been able to make the trip, and they hope to have some from Galapagos travel to St. Louis in the near future. While in the Galapagos Islands, they will track the giant tortoises using telemetry tags much like in St. Louis. In Galapagos, they have 86 tagged tortoises in total now and use them to research the impact humans have on giant tortoises in the Galapagos Islands.  

To further explore conservation medicine, check with your local zoo. Zoos play major roles in conservation medicine, for example, scientists at zoos conduct clinical, nutritional, pathological and epidemiological studies of diseases of conservation concern; provide healthcare to the wildlife in their care, thus ensuring successful zoo breeding programs that contribute to the sustainability of biodiversity; monitor diseases in free-living wild animals where they interface with domestic animals and humans; and perform studies that contribute to the fields of comparative medicine and the discovery of all life forms, from invertebrates and vertebrate species to parasites and pathogens. To continue following Dr. Deem and the St. Louis Box Turtle Project, please follow them on Facebook.

Stephanie Miller

With over 25 years experience, Stephanie serves as a senior copywriter, social media director, and senior editor for Science Scene. Stephanie is always on the lookout for new educational and STEM-related opportunities and technology.