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Endangered Species in the Backyard

What comes to mind when you hear the phrase “endangered species?” Maybe iconic megafauna like elephants, giant pandas, or gorillas? Or famously extinct species like the dodo? What about native wildlife you may have seen in a local park or even your backyard? I spend much of my work time thinking about how to help people connect to wildlife around the globe, so my concept of conservation tends to be biased toward non-native species. And in my personal life, even the more noteworthy species I encounter – vultures, owls, deer, foxes – are not usually threatened species. But every now and then, I see something that reminds me that conservation starts right here at home. 

Whenever I can, I love taking pictures of native wildlife and logging them on iNaturalist. It’s so exciting when other users verify my species identification (and even better if the observation reaches “research grade” quality)! Some of my favorite local observations are a shrew that I saw on Zoo grounds and eastern box turtles in my neighborhood about 10 miles away from the Zoo. (Something really cool about box turtles is that they have a hinged shell that allows them to completely close their head and limbs within it.) Since I had seen them multiple times in my own yard, I was surprised to learn that eastern box turtles are listed as Vulnerable on the IUCN Red List! 

In addition to housing eastern box turtles and teaching guests about the important roles they play in maintaining local ecosystems, Zoo Atlanta also participates in conservation research for the species. Through the Mabel Dorn Reeder Conservation Endowment Fund, our Veterinary Team is supporting a project in partnership with the Georgia Department of Natural Resources, University of North Georgia (UNG),  and Elachee Nature Center to perform health assessments and investigate methods for successful translocation of a box turtle population that may be displaced by planned development in north Georgia. The UNG Herpetology Lab has been gathering data on some of these turtles since 2013, so they have a good understanding of baseline behavior. If the turtles need to be moved, they’ll be able to compare how those individuals use their new habitat to how they used their former habitat. 

The Zoo’s contributions to the collaboration, championed by Dr. Megan Watson, provide opportunities to study any potential impacts to the turtles’ health in addition to their behavior. The role of disease in box turtle population decline is unclear, so performing health assessments on about 30 individuals will provide valuable information. Within the context of this project, screening for common viral diseases before animals are moved is essential to prevent the spread of disease between populations. Baseline bloodwork and physical exams were also performed to obtain the “big picture” of the health of an individual. Veterinary professionals perform similar exams and testing before individual animals move between zoos, too. 

Studies like this are the only way to quantify the effectiveness of conservation strategies. And like all conservation work, translocation projects require a significant investment of time and resources from many collaborators. While the samples for disease screening for this study were sent to a specialized wildlife epidemiology lab, we may be able to conserve resources in future studies thanks to the planned laboratory in the Rollins Animal Health Center (opening later this summer). Those future projects will be able to build upon the knowledge gained, and over time the approach can be modified to continue improving outcomes for wildlife. 

Conservation and research are continuous cycles that are never truly “done.” There will always be more answers to find. It’s exciting to think about what questions we can ask next! 

Sarah Hamilton
Interpretive Engagement Specialist

Connect With Your Wild Side #onlyzooatl