The 2018 season of Turtle Team started off with a bang! Dogs were running everywhere, turtles were being found right and left, and everyone was having a blast! For those unfamiliar with what Turtle Team is, this week we will be giving a brief overview of the project.

Turtle Team is an ongoing research project conducted by the Wildlife Epidemiology Laboratory with the goal of assessing and understanding box turtle health in free ranging populations. The project was started by Dr. Matt Allender in 2007 and has focused on turtles in areas around Illinois. Turtles are collected in the field using highly trained dogs to sniff out and pick up the turtles. Blood samples and swabs of the turtles’ mouths and cloacas (the rear end of a turtle) are taken during a physical exam to document any abnormalities. Using this information, we can determine a number of things such as if the turtle is battling an infection, has been exposed to an infectious pathogen, or if the turtle is stressed. Through this project, we have already learned many new things about turtles. Turtle Team is also a chance for veterinary students from the University of Illinois, who are invited to assist in the field and lab each week, to learn how to draw blood and perform physical exams on turtles as well as how field research is conducted.

Who are we?

Marta Kelly is an upcoming third-year veterinary student that has been leading turtle team for the last  5 years and is happy to be spending her last summer in the field! This year, she will be looking to see if there is a difference in pathogens we can detect between the oral and cloacal swabs we take during physical examinations.


John Winter is an upcoming third-year veterinary student who is leading turtle team for the very first time and is extremely excited about it! John worked for the Wildlife Epi Lab last summer as well, doing Blanding’s turtle health assessments in Lake County, IL. John is interested in zoo and wildlife medicine and research and will be conducting a project this summer examining the reliability of methods for counting turtle white blood cells.

This first week of Turtle Team ended with a total of 79 turtles captured and sampled! This is an incredible number especially when considering that many of the sites these turtles were collected from have historically had less than 5 turtles captured from in years past. Many of the students we had out with us were first time Turtle Teamers but everyone learned the ropes quickly and soon we had a team that was quickly and efficiently working up the turtles as fast as the dogs could find them. Some highlights of the week:

  • it hailing on us while we were sampling turtles in our field tents
  • our team of first timers on hemocytometers (lab technique for counting white blood cells that can be tedious) completed 30 in one day
  • vet student Annie was our lightening rod for ticks by finding 19 ticks on her body while the rest of us had zero.

It was a fantastic first week and has really set the bar high for the rest of the 2018 season! Follow our blog and the other blogs on this page from our lab mates this summer to learn more about this project, turtles, and wildlife health!