Tromping through thick brush. Sloshing through ankle-deep water and over slippery river rocks. Mastering a tricky procedure on a small subject.

All in a special day’s work for the Minnesota Zoo’s animal health staff as they – and their special skill set – joined the Zoo’s turtle conservation team in the field for the first time.

This summer, veterinary technicians Bob Korman and Jenny Prom and veterinary intern Dr. Maya Iyer DVM trekked with the Zoo’s wildlife conservation specialist Dr. Tricia Markle through the habitat of the wood turtle in southern Minnesota. They were in pursuit of this elusive animal and the genetic information that could help save its species.

The Minnesota Zoo’s animal health staff – the veterinarians and certified veterinary technicians – are housed in the same building as the conservation team that includes Dr. Markle. They’re colleagues and collaborators. But this field day marked a new way for vet techs to share their animal expertise.

Dr. Tricia Markle, wildlife conservation specialist at the Minnesota Zoo, uses radio telemetry in the field to track wood turtles.

For Freshwater Turtles

Since 2017, Dr. Markle has tracked wood turtles in southern Minnesota as part of the Minnesota Zoo’s many efforts for freshwater turtle conservation. She works closely with the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources which has been studying and managing this threatened species for decades.

Markle was at a turtle conservation conference in July 2023 when she was approached by a fellow researcher about contributing to a study of wood turtle genetics. They didn’t have any genetic samples from wild wood turtles in southern Minnesota. Could the Minnesota Zoo help collect blood?

She knew how to find the turtles, but the study protocol required that the personnel doing the blood draws must be trained by veterinarians. Markle didn’t have those skills or training herself.  But luckily, there was help to be had just down the hall from her office.

Collecting for Conservation

Cleanly, carefully, quickly. That’s how the animal health staff had to collect the blood samples to meet the protocol of the research study.

“It was very tricky at first,” Markle says of finding a good way to gently stretch the turtle to expose the vein in the neck or tail.

But soon Korman, Prom, and Dr. Iyer had a handle on it. One held the turtle while the second inserted the needle, filled the vial, then pressed on the vein to stop the blood flow.  Everything neatly labeled and data recorded in detail. Then the wood turtle was released right where they found it.

The vials of blood returned to the Zoo, were stabilized for shipment, then sent off to a lab for analysis. The findings of the study will be shared with wildlife conservationists and managers across the North American range of the wood turtle.

Minnesota Zoo veterinary technician Jenny Prom, left, works with Minnesota DNR herpetologist Carol Hall to locate and draw blood samples from wood turtles in southern Minnesota.

“The idea is to compare populations,” Markle says. “Through genetic analysis we can see how populations are related, which lineages are doing well, and which might need more diversity.”

Conservationists will use the information to better manage wild populations. And it could even help with law enforcement.

One of the major threats facing wood turtles is the illegal wildlife trade. Poachers take wild turtles and smuggle them overseas to sell as pets.

“When poachers are caught, they’re not very cooperative,” Markle says. “They’re not going to say where they found the turtles.”

Without that critical information, confiscated wood turtles cannot be released into the wild. Instead, they find homes in zoos or nature centers.

“But if we can get this genetic information, we could return them to the population and area where they were taken,” Markle says. “That’s the ideal.”

And with the knowledge of where poachers operate, there’s hope wood turtles can be protected from poaching and kept off the black market.

Contributing to this genetic research is another important way the Minnesota Zoo can contribute to wood turtle conservation. This work is possible because of strong partnerships between conservationists and animal health staff. They share a building – and a mission to save wildlife.

“I really needed people with experience to have any hope of getting samples,” Markle says. “I couldn’t have done it without the vet techs!”

Learn more about the Minnesota Zoo’s efforts to save freshwater turtles—and how you can help.