This dog is helping Maine biologists protect turtles from illegal pet market

12 months ago

Maine wildlife biologists are using a new approach to track wood turtle populations and keep the critters from being sold illegally as pets.

Stories of illegal wildlife smuggling are most common in Asia, Africa and South America, where birds and animals such as rhinos and elephants are regularly poached and sold in markets for millions. 

But turtle smuggling is on the rise in the United States, with traffickers often crossing international borders to sell the animals as exotic pets.

Wood turtles, like the mother and baby pictured here, are a species of concern for Maine wildlife biologists, who want to protect the state’s populations from illegal pet traffickers. (Courtesy of Sequoia Dixon)

In 2020 federal agents broke up a smuggling ring that had sold 1,500 illegally obtained turtles from the United States to China, including Hong Kong, for as much as $20,000 each. That included spotted turtles, which are endangered in the United States, and wood turtles, which so far are not but are under consideration, according to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

Turtle trafficking is not known to have happened in Maine so far. But that has not stopped Sequoia Dixon, a field biologist technician with Maine Inland Fisheries & Wildlife, and her research companion June, a 3 ½-year-old yellow lab, from trying to ensure the state’s wood turtles don’t become traffickers’ next victims.

Three years ago, Dixon helped the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service conduct field surveys of Maine turtle populations within areas considered wildlife refuges. This spring, Dixon joined two Maine Inland Fisheries & Wildlife interns for the first state survey of those populations.

She also used June, one of only a few dogs in Maine who so far are trained to sniff out turtles in water and on land.

June, a 3 1/2-year-old yellow lab, lays next to a wood turtle she found near a Maine stream this spring. (Courtesy of Sequoia Dixon)

“She’s a friend’s dog that I was babysitting. When we’d go out for walks, she kept finding wood turtles. And then it clicked,” Dixon said. “It really didn’t take long to train her because she already loved finding turtles.”

When Dixon tells June to “Find it,” the lab will search through water or vegetation and then lie down where she has found a turtle. This spring, June and her humans toured streams across the state looking for wood turtles, which typically stay in those waterways until laying their eggs on sandy beaches in late spring.

Dixon rewards June with treats after the dog finds a turtle. The canine has logged an impressive track record throughout western, northern and eastern Maine counties.

“She has been on a total of 48 survey kilometers and has found 62 turtles,” Dixon said.

Using dogs to track certain species of wildlife is still a relatively new practice in the United States, Dixon said. So far she is only aware of researchers in Maine and New York who utilize dogs to find wood turtles.

Though not endangered yet, Dixon said that wood turtles are still vulnerable to being trafficked as illegal pets due to their big red necks, golden eyes and intricate shell patterns. That’s why field biologists never disclose the locations of their turtle surveys. 

Wood turtles, like the one pictured here, are a species of concern for Maine wildlife biologists, who want to protect the state’s populations from illegal pet traffickers. (Courtesy of Sequoia Dixon)

To track the turtles, researchers mark the animals’ shells with a triangular pattern that gives them a unique number ID. They also place a special tag under a turtle’s skin, so if they’re found again, researchers know exactly where that turtle came from.

The tracking technology could come in handy if Maine ever has a turtle trafficking arrest, Dixon said.

“It’s the same as putting a computer chip in your dog’s collar in case they get lost,” Dixon said.

But the goal is to prevent wood turtles from being taken from their natural habitats, thus putting them in danger of population decline. Even when trafficked turtles are found, they easily catch diseases like ranavirus, which can wipe out entire populations.

If anyone spots wood turtles near their property, Dixon said they should call their closest game warden. They can also submit photos and information online through the Maine Amphibian & Reptile Atlas.

And if you spot a dog heading into the woods with wildlife biologists, don’t tell anyone where they’re headed.

“We take this very seriously. It would be cool to say, ‘Hey, there’s a wood turtle in your backyard,’ but we can’t risk identifying where they are,” Dixon said.