By Kathleen Berger, Executive Producer for Science and Technology
Turtle races have always been fun for kids and are part of fairs and events in Missouri and across the country.
“In many places, at county fairs or state fairs,” said Sharon Deem, DVM, PhD, Director of the Saint Louis Zoo Institute for Conservation Medicine.
Although turtle races are fun for fair visitors and participating families who collected the turtles, Deem is looking at turtle races through a scientific lens.
“Let’s say, 30 turtles are brought together from all over the state, and now they’re potentially sharing pathogens or those infectious diseases with each other,” she said. “Emerging infectious diseases is having real population level impacts on a number of different turtle and tortoise species.”
Deem has been engaged in studies about the transmission of infectious diseases among box turtles. It’s a conservation concern. She has spent years studying box turtle health and movements.
“The Saint Louis Box Turtle Project started in 2012,” she explained. “It’s a group effort with the Saint Louis Zoo, Saint Louis University and Washington University in St. Louis.”
Through the Box Turtle Project, Deem is leading researchers and students in Forest Park by tracking individual box turtles. The studies that are done through the Box Turtle Project have some similarities to another study focused on turtle racing. The Saint Louis Zoo Institute for Conservation Medicine partners with Andrea Darracq, PhD, of Murray State University to understand the movement and health of turtles after they have been used in turtle races. Darracq is an associate professor at Murray State University and a Certified Wildlife Biologist through The Wildlife Society.
“If you pick up a turtle somewhere, and you take it very far away, remember, you’re not just taking the turtle. You’re taking anything that’s in that turtle – any parasite or pathogen or any of those other microbes – and you’re moving it to a new area,” said Deem. “Families collect turtles for racing. They usually take them from the wild and rarely return the turtles to the spot where they were taken. They may bring a turtle to the race, have a great day, eat their cotton candy and leave the turtle there. So now we have a turtle that may have come from 100 miles away and wants to navigate back home.”
The pilot study focuses on the effects of turtle racing on box turtle movement and survival. The study includes the placement of radio telemetry devices on turtles that had been in a turtle race in Kentucky in 2021, before releasing the turtles into a state park in Kentucky for tracking, similar to the tracking in Forest Park in St. Louis. Deem and the research team performed molecular diagnostics to test those turtles for the four bad infectious disease of box turtles in our region – mycoplasma, ranavirus, adenovirus, and herpesvirus – prior to their release in that local state park. Only turtles negative for all infectious agents were released
Additionally, the researchers performed disease testing on eight resident turtles already in the designated state park. They also placed radio telemetry devices on those eight turtles. Health checks are performed two times a year on both groups of turtles, in the same way the box turtles are monitored for different studies in Forest Park.
“For understanding the infectious diseases that these turtles may have brought to a race, picked up at a race, and we’re following them with the telemetry devices,” said Deem.
Deem said the goal is to better understand what health challenges, including death, may be associated with turtles used in turtle races, as well as turtles living in areas where race turtles may be introduced.
“People love turtles, right? And we want people to love turtles. And I think, really, if you don’t understand or think about, sort of, the bad outcomes that can happen to your turtle; like little Bobby probably loves his turtle that he’s bringing to the race. But if you don’t think about what it might mean for that turtle, or turtles in general, then you might not see why this could be a problem. That’s where we need science. We need the data to kind of look at whether the things we believe are true with some of these real challenges for the turtles, if they are true by bringing the data together.”
According to the Missouri Department of Conservation, most Missouri turtles can live up to 30 years, but the common box turtle can live up to 80 years, occasionally living more than a century.