BLOOMINGTON — You almost miss the newest residents of Miller Park Zoo in Bloomington as you walk from the bald eagles to the red wolves, but the somewhat camouflaged and compact newcomers are a connection to important research and a sign of the zoo’s future.
Six eastern box turtles have called the spot home since the zoo built an exhibit for them this summer, the result of a donation from Matt Allender, the zoo’s primary veterinarian for the last year and a half.
“These really are spokes-turtles for the environment in North America,” Allender said. “They’re an ideal species to look at the ecosystem.”
Eastern box turtles are Allender’s pet research project. The veterinarian and instructor at the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign College of Veterinary Medicine studies them by sampling the blood and other tissues of turtles he finds in the wild at research sites in eastern Illinois and Tennessee.
The samples show how well the turtles’ bodies are functioning. Abnormalities that become trends can point to changes in the environment.
Turtles can be good indicators of environmental problems that also can affect humans because they function both in water and on land, are omnivores, and can live for more than 100 years, Allender said. Because turtles live long lives, toxins accumulate in their bodies and the effects can be seen over time.
Turtles also are ectothermic, meaning their bodies are the temperature of their environment.
“They’re entirely dependent on their environment for basic functions we tend to take for granted,” Allender said. “They’re a sentinel to tell us when environmental damage is occurring or about to occur.”
In addition to housing the more social eastern box turtles, the zoo supports some of the infectious disease testing for the free-range turtles Allender studies in the wild.
The turtles in the zoo are a symbol of the role eastern box turtles play in the region’s environment and the zoo’s partnership with the University of Illinois, said Jay Tetzloff, zoo superintendent.
“The zoo wants to become a bigger conservation organization,” he said. “We’re there already, but we want to take it up another step.”
Tetzloff said the zoo is looking into other potential partnerships that could help it promote its conservation mission.
The zoo is home to a number of struggling species, including the San Clemente goat and the endangered snow leopard, and participates in a breeding program with other zoos through the Association of Zoos and Aquariums.
In addition to actually participating in the conservation efforts, the zoo needs to educate people on those efforts, Tetzloff said. “If people don’t know about it, they don’t care about it,” he said.