Out in the fields of thick sandhill wire grass—also called pineland threeawn—just outside of the town of Cheraw in South Carolina, a 65-year-old retired English teacher and self-taught naturalist, is America’s Turtle Whisperer.
When John Rucker was ten years old, he was in a similar field near the Black River in North Carolina, hunting coveys of bobwhite quail with his father and a dog handler named Frank Simpson. Simpson’s dogs were Boykin Spaniels, which is the State Dog of South Carolina. While searching for birds, one of the dogs showed interest in a specific area of grass, all of a sudden.
“Frank walked over, bent down, and found that the dog had led him to a box turtle,” Rucker said recalling a memory to the national magazine Garden and Gun. “Then he told us , ‘Some dogs are wired up a little differently. They like to point box turtles.’”
Rucker had almost forgotten this memory until one day, 20 years ago, he was presented a box turtle during a hunt in Tennessee by a Boykin Spaniel named Buster.
Rucker returned the turtle to its home and praised the Boykin Spaniel. Buster then returned to Rucker with more box turtles.
“Another dog wired up a little different, rewrote the history of turtle research,” Rucker said.
Today, whenever he tells Watcher, one of his Boykin Spaniels, to “hunt turtle,” the dog begins to quickly run back and forth through the wire grass and doesn’t stop looking until he has a turtle in his tightly-shut mouth. Researchers who are trying to save the dwindling population of box turtles in North America, highly seek Rucker and his dogs who live in Shady Valley, Tennessee.
In the Town of Shady Valley, Rucker raises his own turtle-finding dogs. He discovered that out of each litter, two or three dogs might have the capacity of taking interest in and finding turtles. Before Rucker got into raising these dogs, it was difficult for researchers to get an accurate number on turtle populations, especially in forests. Boykin Spaniels that Rucker found are perfect turtle hunters as they are obliging and have soft mouths. The dogs’ noses can sniff out most turtles on an acre of land and can pick up very small traces of scent left behind by the turtles as they move. They can smell turtles as small as a coin- and ball-size hatchlings.
“It’s amazing,” Rucker says. “When they know I really want a turtle, they get fanatical about it.”
The Appalachian Mountains are the last great stronghold for the eastern box turtle and, with the help of his dogs, Rucker has found good news there. In some parts of the Appalachians, the dogs have shown that the box turtle population numbers are similar to those from the pre-Columbian era, with a healthy mix of hatchlings and 75-year-old adults. In a swath along a new corridor of Interstate 69 in Indiana, Rucker collected scores of turtles. The turtles were kept in a holding area during the highway’s construction and were then returned to their original home, which now has miles of turtle-extruder fencing. In over 65 years, the South Dakota National Heritage Foundation had listed only 13 sightings of the culturally important species: ornate box turtles. In one week, Rucker’s dogs were able to not only find 130 of the turtles on the Pine Ridge Indian reservation, but also help discover that they need a specific shade-providing species of wire grass to survive.
Unfortunately, not all discoveries have been joyful. A large study in Massachusetts found multiple old turtles but no hatchlings. “The people I worked with were heartbroken,” Rucker said. “The turtles were a living dead population. There were no offspring.” Unhappily, that’s also what is happening across most swaths in Rucker’s native Southeast, where populations of box turtles are dropping due to monoculture crops and timberland, and habitat fragmentation from overdevelopment and new roads. People collecting box turtles and then selling them as pets is another hazard to their survival and is something that Rucker hopes to see eradicated in South Carolina where it remains legal. Rucker says that in many ways, the box turtles’ situation is similar to that of the bobwhite quail. This is due to their open-space habitat requirements for a healthy population that includes at least one hundred acres of ecologically diverse forest or grassland, and an even mix of about seventy-five, both male and female, turtles.
“What the dogs have taught us is that if you get an area much smaller than that, you get zero recruitment,” he says. “There’s so much predation that they eventually don’t even hatch.”
When Rucker was asked why he’s so driven, “his eyes lit up and his voice jumped an octave,” wrote Chris Dixon in an article for Garden and Gun. “Turtles predate the dinosaurs,” he says. “We can study them and understand how they have survived unimaginable stresses. And that has applications to humans. It’s the tortoise or the hare. Which one ultimately wins the race? Well, maybe it’s the slow, methodical one, not the one that moves swiftly and with no thought of consequences. The turtle teaches these lessons better than any animal that I know of.”
[Source: Garden and Gun]