From search and rescue to herding livestock and assisted therapy, our canine companions are truly extraordinary. Often referred to as “man’s best friend,” dogs have held an important place in the hearts of people across the world.
At Roger Williams Park Zoo in Providence, Rhode Island, one particularly remarkable pup put his impressive skills into action to help protect wild turtle conservation.
Newt and his super snout
Meet Newt, the turtle tracking dog. This fox red Labrador retriever spent most of last summer using his stellar snout to sniff out turtles across Rhode Island to aid conservation efforts.
Newt spent six weeks with the Rhode Island Department of Environmental Management, University of Rhode Island, St. Lawrence University and Roger Williams Park Zoo checking on local turtle populations of conservation concern. The project was led by St. Lawrence University conservation biology professor (and Newt’s owner) Kris Hoffmann and student Julia Sirois who worked with Newt.
Newt with trainer Julia Sirois
Hoffmann and Newt worked with Canine College, a service and narcotics detection dog training facility in Watertown, New York. There, Newt sharpened his snout so he could easily find turtles. As a Labrador retriever, Newt is happy in the water and was bred to work in the field, making him the perfect candidate to scope out turtles.
Tracking Rhode Island turtles aids conservation
The project’s goal was to collect invaluable data to identify and learn more about populations of Rhode Island’s threatened turtle species, such as movements and habitat use.
The turtle-tracking research team with Roger Williams Park Zoo hard at work and tagging some turtles that Newt found.
Rhode Island is home to seven native turtle species. The project team is working to potentially identify new populations and learn more about existing populations. They do this by marking and fitting turtles with a noninvasive, passive integrated transponder tag, which contains a microchip that allows researchers to track the turtles’ movements. By knowing how and where the turtle moves, the team can prioritize its conservation efforts on areas where they can have the biggest impact.
Before Newt, the team spent hours in the field trying to find turtles and often came up short. But Newt’s exceptional snout gave them the ability to locate turtles in areas that were not easily accessible to humans.
It’s been reported that a dog’s sense of smell is up to 100,000 times more acute than a human. A typical dog’s nose contains 300 million olfactory receptors (aka odor receptors) compared to the six million found in a human nose.
When Newt detected a turtle, he would signal or alert, by lying down beside the reptile. He was then rewarded handsomely with his absolute favorite item in the entire world — his tennis ball.
“To use dogs to help us find elusive species, I think, is very beneficial for us,” said Lou Perrotti, director of conservation programs at Roger Williams Park Zoo. “These dogs can help us find the little-age classes that are almost impossible to find — hatchlings, subadults. These are very secretive animals for humans to find, but a dog’s nose can pick them right up. So, I think it’s valuable for us in making sure that any research we are doing with any particular turtle species, we can get the whole picture by using dogs.”
As Rhode Island’s turtle species are threatened with habitat loss, disease and the unfortunate increase in illegal poaching, Newt’s work has proven critical to learning more about the state’s turtle populations.
Newt and this collaborative project continue to have a pawsome impact on wildlife conservation.
Roger Williams Park Zoo is one of 238 Association of Zoo and Aquariums accredited institutions. Mutual of Omaha’s Wild Kingdom is proud to promote wildlife education alongside the AZA. Check out some amazing work from fellow AZA institutions: