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A 100-year study could help save box turtles

RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:

With a story about an animal that inspires a lot of love - and right now some concern - we're talking about box turtles. These are the turtles with rounded shells and yellow blotches. They roam around forests and backyards, looking like little wrinkled ETs. Their numbers appear to be in decline, which is why one group in North Carolina is doing an ambitious long-term study. NPR's Nell Greenfieldboyce reports that they want this study to last 100 years, just like a box turtle can.

NELL GREENFIELDBOYCE, BYLINE: Ann Somers is a retired biology professor. She's got white hair. She's 70 years old. When she was 7 years old, growing up in North Carolina, she found a box turtle in the woods. She looked the turtle in the eye, and it looked right back.

ANN SOMERS: I was just mesmerized by the fact that there was this beautiful creature that allowed me to touch them and to pick them up.

GREENFIELDBOYCE: Box turtles live across much of the Eastern and Midwestern United States. There's a half-dozen subspecies, so lots of people have had box turtle experiences, especially as kids, mucking around outside - like Trudie Henninger. She's a nature educator at the North Carolina Arboretum. She has a turtle tattooed on her arm.

TRUDIE HENNINGER: I love them (laughter).

GREENFIELDBOYCE: Why? Like, you know, people like different things. What's the appeal of turtles to you?

HENNINGER: They've always been kind of that animal that has gotten me into nature and, like, always hearing my family's stories about turtles that they knew in their neighborhoods and that my granddad knew in his neighborhood.

GREENFIELDBOYCE: The trouble is, box turtles don't seem to be as common now as when people's parents and grandparents were kids. A few long-term studies have looked at turtles in, say, a single wildlife refuge and seen sharp declines over the last few decades - like, losses of 75%. But studies done in a small area might not reflect the bigger picture. That's why these two women and other volunteers are working on something called the Box Turtle Connection. For the last 14 years, it's been tracking thousands of turtles at dozens of sites across the entire state of North Carolina. Ann Somers says the plan is to keep going for a century. Box turtles are so long-lived, short studies just won't cut it.

SOMERS: It's a life span similar to a human life span. Humans can live to be a 100-year-old easily, if conditions are right.

GREENFIELDBOYCE: Conditions are increasingly not right for box turtles. Cars speed down highways. Lawnmowers slice through grass. Bulldozers raze forests. There's even international syndicates that want to snatch them up to sell them as pets overseas. One guy in North Carolina pled guilty this year to illegally collecting over 700 box turtles.

JOHN ROE: I think the demand, for whatever reason, has gone up recently. And you see these criminal organized rings that are focusing on that, and that is a real threat.

GREENFIELDBOYCE: That's John Roe, a professor at the University of North Carolina. He took me to one of the study sites after I vowed to keep its location secret. We moved slowly through some woods, scanning the ground.

ROE: It recently rained, and you have a lot of mushrooms growing, and that's one of their preferred food items. So they should be out and active on the surface.

GREENFIELDBOYCE: We look around logs, under ferns. Then Roe points to some brown and yellow leaves.

ROE: Do you see it?

GREENFIELDBOYCE: Yes, I do.

ROE: So I had to look at it from, like, a different direction. I circled this, and then I finally saw the yellow head, and that's what stuck out to me.

GREENFIELDBOYCE: This small turtle is a male. You can tell by clues like the shape of the bottom shell. On the edge of the shell are some V-shaped notches. These were made deliberately as part of the study. It's a unique pattern that identifies this turtle. Roe looks in the records. This turtle was first captured in 2015, then again in 2016. The critter patiently endures being measured, photographed, weighed.

So what do you think his days are like up here?

ROE: Oh, gosh. I often think about what a turtle might be thinking about just sitting around and - where the next mushroom bloom is going to be, or maybe a female is going to walk by today.

GREENFIELDBOYCE: He's attached radio transmitters to the shells of some turtles.

(SOUNDBITE OF RECEIVER BEEPING)

GREENFIELDBOYCE: He can find them with a receiver that beeps as he gets closer. Box turtles are homebodies. They mostly stick to the same small area - like, a few acres.

ROE: Sometimes we'll have a male that gets up and moves, like, a kilometer or two all of a sudden, totally out of the blue, unexpected. And then they'll come right back to the area where they were. And I don't know what he was thinking then. I call it his walkabout.

GREENFIELDBOYCE: Roe says when he first got involved with this long-term study, he was skeptical it could last a hundred years.

ROE: But then I went to my first Box Turtle Connection training meeting and saw the huge number of people who came from all across the state. That convinced me otherwise. I thought that this project does have a chance.

GREENFIELDBOYCE: If it succeeds, it'll be the biggest, longest study of box turtles ever, showing what lessons can be learned from knowing where box turtles are at risk and where they're thriving. The first 10 years of data were recently analyzed, and so far they haven't seen any changes.

GABRIELLE GRAETER: One possibility is that we missed some of the declines - they've happened in the last 50 years and not just in the last 10 years.

GREENFIELDBOYCE: Gabrielle Graeter works for the North Carolina Wildlife Resources Commission. She says, remember.

GRAETER: Ten years in the life of one of these turtles is not very long.

GREENFIELDBOYCE: It takes them almost that long to reach adulthood. When she took me out to look for box turtles, we kept running into groups of children, campers. Brian Bockhahn of North Carolina State Parks asked them if they liked turtles.

UNIDENTIFIED CHILDREN: Yes.

BRIAN BOCKHAHN: On the count of three say, I like turtles. One, two, three.

UNIDENTIFIED CHILDREN: I like turtles.

GREENFIELDBOYCE: One of the kids starts telling us about a box turtle he saw. Who knows? One day he might end up working on this project and might even be around to see the final results in the year 2108.

Nell Greenfieldboyce, NPR News.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Nell Greenfieldboyce is a NPR science correspondent.