Legos Keep An Injured Box Turtle On The Move At the Maryland Zoo

The clever application of STEAM principles is helping an injured Maryland box turtle.

What a great way to intertwine science, technology and engineering to help a four footed friend down on his luck!

“In July, an injured turtle was found in Druid Hill Park by a Zoo employee, and was brought to the Zoo’s hospital for treatment,” said Dr. Ellen Bronson, senior director of animal health, conservation, and research at the Zoo. “He had multiple fractures on his plastron, the bottom part of his shell. Because of the unique placement of the fractures, we faced a difficult challenge with maintaining the turtle’s mobility while allowing him to heal properly.”

The Zoo’s veterinary team performed surgery to stabilize the turtle’s severely fractured shell. Metal bone plates, sewing clasps and surgical wire now hold the delicate shell fragments together.

rsz dsc 9924“It was important to keep the bottom of the shell off the ground so it could heal properly,” said Garrett Fraess, veterinary extern at the Zoo. (A veterinary extern is a fourth year veterinary student doing a clinical rotation at the Zoo as part of their veterinary school training.) “They don’t make turtle-sized wheelchairs. So, we drew some sketches of a customized wheelchair and I sent them to a friend who is a LEGO® enthusiast.”

The sketches proved to be a success and the turtle received his very own multi-colored LEGO® brick wheelchair just a few weeks after surgery. The turtle is roughly the size of a grapefruit. The small LEGO® frame surrounds his shell and sits on four LEGO® wheels. Plumbers putty attaches the device to the edges of the turtle’s upper shell, which gets him off of the ground and allows his legs to be freed up so he can move.”

“He never even hesitated,” said Fraess. “He took off and has been doing great. Turtles are really good at healing as long as the shell remains stable.”

With the strength of his front legs, the turtle uses his unique transportation to move around inside and outside. The design allows him to exhibit natural behaviors, such as fully closing his shell if he feels threatened.

“Turtles heal much slower than mammals and birds, since their metabolism is slower So, this turtle will likely use his LEGO® wheelchair through the winter and into the spring until all of the fragments have fused together and the shell has completely healed,” said Dr. Bronson.

Since 1996, the Zoo has led a Druid Hill Park Eastern box turtle monitoring project. To date, 132 wild turtles have been recorded, tagged and released. The project helps the conservation staff to get a better idea how a native Maryland species is thriving in an urban park setting, and sheds light on turtle territory ranges and behaviors in this rapidly declining species. “This particular turtle was originally tagged in 2000, making him at least 18-years-old,” continued Bronson. “We are very happy that he is recovering well from his injuries and we plan to return him to the wild once he is fully healed.”

rsz dsc 9932 copyEastern box turtles can be seen in the Zoo’s Maryland Wilderness. They are one of eleven turtle species found throughout Maryland. In the wild they will roam a very large territory - as large as a football field. If you find a turtle crossing the road, take it to the other side so he can continue on his journey. Never relocate a box turtle away from his home. They rarely travel far from where they were hatched. Turtles form a connection to these surroundings, they stay there for the duration of their life. Box turtles will not simply settle down in a new location if moved. More often than not, they will wander aimlessly; hopelessly trying to fine their old home until they die. It’s best never to remove a box turtle from their home unless there is an injury or there is construction in their home. If you do take in a box turtle, when releasing the turtle to the wild, it must be in the exact same spot you took them from.  

In Maryland, it is illegal to sell turtles as pets if they are caught from the wild. Turtles do make great pets, and you can help protect these native reptiles by only purchasing from reputable dealers. You should never release captive turtles into the wild as they can spread diseases like ranavirus to wild turtles.

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