Every turtle that lives in the wild matters, and three-year-old pup Newt is doing all in his power to assist them. In order for his human coworkers to keep track of the local populations, Newt, a crucial part of a sizable conservation team in Rhode Island, utilizes his keen sense of smell to identify all different kinds of turtles, both aquatic and land-based.
As predators, prey, and ecosystem engineers, turtles have important roles in nature, according to Julia Sirois, a conservation biology student at St. Lawrence University (SLU), who spoke with The Dodo. “We must maintain the population’s health.”
To make sure that the local turtle population is doing well, biologists in Rhode Island need to physically see them first. But turtles in the wild are hard to spot with the human eye, so SLU’s conservation biology department decided to add a canine member to its team.
“Newt was specifically raised to be a conservation detection dog,” Sirois said.
Newt’s training started while he was still a young puppy. With the help of SLU’s Dr. Kris Hoffman, undergraduate student Hannah Duffy and a few expert trainers, Newt quickly learned how to track down specific scents.
“His training started with being rewarded when he smelled a tin containing birch,” Sirois said. “Then the game changed to picking out the scented tin among empty tins and eventually to finding hidden tins.”
One day, Newt’s trainers placed a single drop of birch oil on a football field. After Newt successfully found the drop of oil in less than a minute, his team decided it was time to introduce him to the scent of a spadefoot toad.
Soon, Newt started his first official assignment: tracking down spadefoot toads for the Mass Audubon
Sirois, Newt’s second student handler, chose to teach him how to discover uncommon turtles because Newt did so well on his spadefoot toad assignment. In parallel, according to Sirois, “biologists in Rhode Island were seeking to determine where vulnerable turtle species lived within the state.”
As a result, Newt and his handler joined the state-wide conservation initiative and started looking for turtles that were in danger of extinction.
According to Sirois, “Newt helped locate new places with turtle species that are more in need of conservation or vulnerable.” Dr. Hoffman predicted that we would discover a turtle on average once every three days, but we really found one every day.
There are a few crucial things Newt does to protect himself and the turtles when it comes to informing his handlers about a new discovery.
Sirois said, “When Newt discovers a turtle, he lies down facing it. The turtle is not picked up by him.
Sirois orders Newt to bring his nose closer to the turtle if she can’t first see it he is alerting to.
Once the turtle is identified, another member of the conservation team documents his location, how he behaves, and takes pictures of the unique pattern under his shell so that they can recognize the turtle again in future searches.
Every time Newt successfully identifies a turtle, Sirois rewards him with his most coveted toy. “His favorite things in life are tennis balls,” Sirois said. “He even taught himself as a puppy to toss the ball to people so that they would throw it faster.”
After running around happily with his ball for a few minutes, Sirois gives Newt a “search” command to keep surveying new areas.
When Newt isn’t on a search mission in the field, he can usually be found playing at home with Dr. Hoffman or by her side at work. But his handler emphasized that tracking dogs are not the same as house pets.
According to Sirois, “He is high-energy, quickly bored, over-excited, a smart problem-solver, and has little respect for silence and rest.” He acts differently from the typical pet Labrador retriever, more like a police dog.
The future expansion of SLU’s conservation program, which is entirely contingent on financing, includes both more dogs and students.
The Recovering America’s Wildlife Act (RAWA), according to Sirois, “would revolutionize the game.” “We could pay for an entire Newt turtle squad!”