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Eastern Box Turtles

Koda, the Zoo’s “Turtle Dog,” is being trained to assist staff in locating turtles in their native habitat as part of vital conservation work to protect and bolster regionally threatened populations of turtles, particularly the locally rare eastern box turtle.


Turtle dog on the job! After almost a year of training and learning how to track box turtles, Koda joined the team in the field for the first time! Up until this first field adventure, Koda’s training had involved finding empty turtle shells, so this was a big step for the pup! Here’s more from one of Koda’s trainers, Christine:

“This visit to the field was the next step in Koda’s training. Typically, her training involves finding an old empty turtle shell scented with turtle bedding, so this was the first time that she encountered a living turtle! Julie, from our Conservation Department, had gone out ahead of time to make sure there were some turtles nearby for Koda to find. We wanted to set her up for success for her first time in the field. At first, Koda was a little bit nervous seeing a live turtle … it moves! Upon closer inspection, Koda realized the turtles were harmless, and she was eager to find more. Koda found six turtles on her first day in the field, which was very impressive. Julie had found five turtles ahead of time, so the sixth turtle Koda found all on her own! Koda will be continuing her training both at the Zoo, and in the field sites. The eastern box turtle is a locally rare and declining species here in Massachusetts due to habitat loss. Koda will be an invaluable team member as she will assist us in more quickly and accurately locating these turtles that we are working so hard to protect. She’s making great progress and we can’t wait to see her in action as she gets more and more confident!”

ZNE biologists currently depend on imprecise visual surveys to locate box turtles in dense woodlands. With their well camouflaged shells, human observers might step right next to a hiding box turtle without ever finding it. A dog, however, can use its highly developed sense of smell to pinpoint the turtles much more quickly and effectively. And that’s where Koda, the our Australian shepherd mix comes in.

With more than 220 million olfactory receptors in its nose, a dog’s sense of smell is over 1,000 times greater than that of humans, making dogs like Koda a researcher’s best friend. Dogs can be trained to distinguish between different species of turtles and possibly even males and females of one species.

Koda’s trainer, Zoo New England Assistant Curator Chris Bartos, is no stranger to this line of work. Bartos trained Finn, the first ever scat (feces) detection dog at the Cheetah Conservation Fund (CCF) in Namibia. Bartos hopes the skills and training techniques she used to teach Finn will be as successful with Koda.

Koda is also a frequent zoo visitor, going on walks through Franklin Park Zoo several days a week in between her training and play sessions. It’s likely that a few lucky guests may have the chance to spot the small brown pup wearing her bright “Turtle Dog” vest.