Dr. Lauren Novak’s Favorite Turtle in the World: The Eastern Box Turtle

Dr. Lauren Novak is not only a zoo veterinarian but also a passionate wildlife conservationist and biologist. She is particularly fond of one of the most common reptiles in Virginia: the Eastern Box Turtle. This beautiful species is found throughout the eastern United States, from Maine to Florida and west to the Great Lakes region and Texas. We will be exploring Dr. Novak’s passion for the species, and why she believes box turtles are the most important species in determining environmental health that is native to our own backyards. 

Dr. Lauren Novak attended veterinary school at the University of Illinois College of Veterinary Medicine. She joined the  Wildlife Epidemiology Lab during her time there, where she was able to take part in environmental health surveys through the assessment of box turtle health surveillance. She quickly grew to love the species by noting their vibrant colors and unique personalities. Box turtles, and turtles in general, have a reputation for being shy and retreating into their shells when disturbed. Dr. Lauren’s experience working with them was quite the opposite. When she and her team would work with these wild box turtles to obtain blood samples and swabs, turtles were far more curious and interactive making their way into everyone’s heart. They’d peek out of their shells, watch the team take blood, and even look at them directly at the males with red eyes and the females with brown. While the males are typically larger than the females, they both had such lovable demeanors. 

Through working with these box turtles, she discovered how critical they are to assessing ecosystem health. They don’t possess the ability to regulate their own temperatures like we do, either by sweating or shivering, and thus they are heavily dependent on the environment they inhabit. . These box turtles have very small home ranges, likely not much larger than a nature reserve. Their wellbeing directly correlates with the health of the ecosystem, and thus scientists from across the country have taken it upon themselves to measure and assess the turtles’ health in order to monitor and better understand the ecosystem health over time.  Sometimes box turtles are equipped with trackers to trace their  home ranges and allow for more direct health monitoring. Research groups will collect health data annually, allowing for extrapolation as to the ecosystem’s health over time. This data can then be implemented to make change and protect local ecosystems for years to come

What can you do to help box turtles? Dr. Lauren had some tips and tricks to help a box turtle when it’s in need. Have you ever helped a turtse to the other side of the road? A great way to help a turtle avoid the danger of passing cars, it is critical to bring them to the side of the road they were originally heading towards. Turtles move with purpose. They may be headed to a breeding ground or to a known resource that they need to help regulate their health, like a patch of delicious food or standing water. If you move them to the side of the road away from their intended destination, they will attempt to cross the road again. 

If a turtle is injured or appears sick, you can bring them to your local wildlife rehabilitation center. When it comes to assisting turtles, however, it is necessary to record where you found them, either noting the location on the road or GPS location.  Box turtles have small home ranges. If they are relocated to an unfamiliar area, they may not know where to find food or water. They may also introduce a disease that was normal in their original home range to the new group of turtles. The new turtles may not have been exposed to the disease and will note have any immunity to aid them in surviving the infection. This can have a significantly negative impact to their population. 

Box turtles, while charismatic and beautiful, also play a pivotal role in ecosystem health monitoring. Everyone can make a difference in helping to protect and advocate for this unique and important species, that is native to our own backyards. They deserve our attention and protection because their well-being directly correlates with the health of the ecosystem.

Here at the Zoo, we are excited to share more information about our Turtle Oasis a science- and conservation-based outdoor habitat, focusing on the rescue, care, and research of freshwater turtles that need our help. It will be nationally recognized by the Association of Zoos and Aquariums as part of the Virginia Zoo’s ongoing conservation efforts and an official AZA SAFE (Saving Animals From Extinction) Program. Visit our site for more information https://virginiazoo.org/coming-soon-turtle-oasis.