Tracked Turtle Returns to Tufts Wildlife Clinic

Eastern box turtle from Mass Audubon Sanctuary rehabs for winter at Tufts Wildlife Clinic
An easter box turtle with a transmitter on it’s shell eating a bowl of chopped fruits and vegetables.
Turtle #63 enjoying a meal at Tufts Wildlife Clinic. Photo: Jeff Poole, Cummings School of Veterinary Medicine

"It's not often that we get a turtle with a transmitter and are able to know it's been here before," says Dr. Maureen Murray, V03, director of Tufts Wildlife Clinic, associate clinical professor in the Department of Infectious Disease and Global Heath, and Gabriel and Valerie Schmergel Term Director of Wildlife Medicine at Cummings School of Veterinary Medicine at Tufts University.

"We usually let patients go and wish them the best. In cases where there are sightings in the wild and rare instances when they come in years later with a different injury, it's nice to confirm that the treatment and rehabilitation process was effective in getting animals back into the wild to do what they're supposed to do in their ecosystem." 

Last year, more than 3,800 animals were treated at Tufts Wildlife Clinic. The animals were found injured in the wild and brought in by members of the public, animal control offers, and wildlife rehabilitators. Dr. Murray notes that the most common species they see are birds, followed by a range of mammals—eastern gray squirrels, eastern cottontail rabbits, porcupines, bobcats, coyotes, and even yearling bears—reptiles, and amphibians. "Any native New England species, we will treat. Turtle #63 is a repeat customer."

Turtle #63 is an eastern box turtle first sighted at the Wellfleet Bay Wildlife Sanctuary in Cape Cod in 1988. The Sanctuary is a property of the Massachusetts Audubon Society, a nonprofit organization dedicated to land protection and wildlife conservation. Two women started the organization 125 years ago to protect birds hunted for their feathers. With eleven hundred acres of woodlands, salt marshes, and beaches, Wellfleet Sanctuary is home to wildlife, from frogs to fiddler crabs and ducks to migrating shorebirds. 

Tim O'Brien started volunteering for Mass Audubon more than 20 years ago with the sea turtle rescue program. He took over a mark-and-recapture study of eastern box turtles in the Wellfleet Sanctuary, which started in 1984. He also tracks six-year-old hatchlings with radio transmitters at the Sanctuary for a long-term Mass Audubon study and a small population of wood turtles off Cape Cod for Zoo New England. 

O'Brien's self-described obsession with turtles started in childhood. "I'd like to leave something when I'm gone," he says. "I want to be able to close my eyes for the last time and know that I did something good, that the population of eastern box turtles is improving because of something I did with partners like Tufts."

A semi-retired mechanical engineer, O'Brien integrated modern tracking equipment into the program's data tracking and followed the protocols of studies conducted by other successful researchers in the field. His work involves locating turtles in the Wellfleet Sanctuary, identifying, weighing, measuring them, and assessing their health. Of the turtles with transmitters, he notes where the turtles travel throughout the Sanctuary and how they utilize the habitat. His observations and data are recorded in Mass Audubon's 40-year study on the box turtles' biology and history. 

"We have about 75 box turtles on site. Some we see frequently, some infrequently, and some once and never again," says O'Brien. Careful to limit his interaction with each turtle to once or twice a year, O'Brien conducts his work in the field. He paints a dot on a specific scute (plate on a turtle's shell) to indicate the month, with the color indicating the year (currently green), so that he knows not to pick up any turtles he recently processed. "I minimize handling because you want turtles to be afraid of people, to box up when predators approach."

O'Brien first encountered Turtle #63 in 2017. When the turtle was found initially, she was marked as an adult turtle (20 years or older), putting her at approximately 55-60 years old. He noticed an infected wound on the front of her rear leg, preventing her from pulling her hind legs back into her shell. O'Brien scooped her up and brought her to Tufts Wildlife Clinic.

His first trip to Tufts Wildlife Clinic happened more than a decade ago with diamondback terrapins that had come out of brumation (reptile hibernation) into a storm. He has since returned many times with injured or sick turtles and birds. Conversely, the team at Tufts Wildlife Clinic often consults with O'Brien when trying to determine the right spot to release turtles ready to return to the wild. 

"Tufts Wildlife Clinic is by far the best place to go. They have top-level equipment, unbelievably talented people, and there's nothing like a teaching hospital," says O'Brien.

Dr. Murray cleaned, treated, and bandaged Turtle #63's wounds and kept her at the clinic for two months while she healed. In July, O'Brien felt she should be returned to her territory so that she could breed the following year, while Dr. Murray had some concern that she was not yet fully healed. 

"So we struck a deal that I would put a radio transmitter on the turtle, check on her every few weeks, and if there was a problem, I would bring her back. I have followed her faithfully since 2017," says O'Brien. 

Over the years, O'Brien has found Turtle #63 more fascinating than most turtles.

"Lots of turtles don't go far," says O'Brien. "This turtle circumvents a field in the same pattern, going to the same places year after year. The transmitter died in 2020, and I couldn't find her. I got nervous and looked at my notes to see where she was in the middle of August over the past few years. I found her under the same bush she goes to every year. She has delighted me since that time."

Last October, O'Brien noticed her transmissions were far from her typical haunts for that time of year. He tracked her to the edge of salt march in a thick, green briar. After carefully crawling in, he found her with all four legs swollen and hanging out of the shell. O'Brien felt a deep sense of relief after he picked her up, and she moved. 

The turtle's rear legs were so inflamed she could not retract them into her shell, similar to her previous injuries. However, her front legs were also swollen, possibly indicating a systemic infection. O'Brien noticed scratch marks on the back of her shell, suggesting a predator, though no puncture wounds were found on her legs. 

"We don't know exactly what happened, other than there was no way she could make it through the winter. She could not have dug a brumation burrow with inflamed legs. I believe she was under that bush to die," says O'Brien.

He took Turtle #63 straight to Tufts Wildlife Clinic. Dr. Murray and her team debrided the wounds, putting the turtle under anesthesia to clean out the dead and infected tissue. They bandaged her up and continued to treat her with antibiotics. The doctors kept the bandages on for a few weeks until the turtle's legs were healthy enough to unwrap. Dr. Murray noted that Turtle #63 tolerated her treatment well and seemed to enjoy the meal plan at Tufts Wildlife Clinic especially. 

Turtles often stay the winter at Tufts Wildlife Clinic if they are not fully healed in time for brumation, a metabolic state that slows down all body systems—including the healing process. Eastern box turtles typically begin brumation by early November. By the time Turtle #63 healed, she missed the opportunity for brumation so that she would rehabilitate over the winter at Tufts Wildlife Clinic.

"The goal is to put patients back in the wild as quickly as we can. They like the free meals, but any wild animal wants to be put back in the wild. With turtles, if we miss that window for them to go into brumation and it's too cold, then we can't release them at that point. So she had to spend the winter with us, convalescing in our Tufts turtle spa," says Dr. Murray with a chuckle.

Turtle #63 has enjoyed a warm basking area, a shallow pool to soak in, and plenty of food all winter.

"Tufts takes exceptional care of her. You can feel the caring nature of everyone there. It's second to none," says O'Brien. "The compassion of the staff and the depth of their commitment to excellence is impressive. I tear up when I think of the people who are so wonderful there."

Tufts Wildlife Clinic treats other monitored species of conservation concern in the state, such as peregrine falcons and bald eagles, many of which have identification bands on their legs. Occasionally, the staff will learn about the sightings of these former patients. But it was a special situation for the team to know they were treating a patient for the second time, especially a protected turtle with a radio transmitter.

Eastern box turtles are designated as a species of special concern on the Massachusetts Endangered Species List due to their low population numbers (other designations include endangered and threatened). According to Dr. Murray, most turtle species in the state are on that list. Hatchings typically need to survive ten years to reach reproductive age. Reproductive adult turtles must return to their habitats to sustain their populations. From tracking and weighing her, O'Brien believes Turtle #63 nests every summer.

Now that she has completely recovered, Dr. Murray and O'Brien are waiting until the weather is reliably warm enough, with a target of mid-May, to return Turtle #63 to her territory in the Wellfleet Sanctuary. 

O'Brien is ready. "We'll release her in the exact spot that I found her. I'll put a fresh radio on her, and we'll begin our eighth season together."