Topeka Zoo and Conservation Center Works to Save Kansas Reptile

The seven zoos in Kansas accredited by the Association of Zoos and Aquariums are working together to evaluate the ornate box turtle population across the state in eight counties. The ornate box turtle is the state reptile of Kansas.

Turtles are the most threatened group of vertebrates worldwide. Nearly 42% of turtle and tortoise species are threatened with extinction (Turtle Conservation Coalition, 2018). There are anecdotal reports of a significant decline in ornate box turtle numbers across the state of Kansas.

To guide conservation management decisions, new baseline population data is needed as the last study reporting population numbers concluded in 1956 and was not considered a viable study as it was only conducted in one county.

The project will be closely supervised by trained staff from the seven accredited zoos and will include a citizen science component designed to engage members of the public in hands-on, meaningful conservation science while increasing awareness and understanding of ornate box turtles. “Engaging citizens in species stewardship and conservation is a proven method of affecting behavior change and positively impacting wildlife,” said Topeka Zoo’s Director of Conservation and Education Dennis Dinwiddie.

Each zoo participating in the project will set up two census plots – one with known ornate box turtle observations (current or historical) and one where the presence of ornate box turtles is unknown. By surveying areas with historical records of ornate box turtles, it will confirm if those populations persist and assess their viability. Choosing a second census plot where the presence of ornate box turtles is unknown will safeguard against biased survey results that would occur if only sites known to contain turtles were surveyed. Censuses will be conducted at scheduled times between early March to early November over the next three years.

This three year project will serve as the first viable ornate box turtle population study ever conducted in Kansas. Data collected will be shared with the Kansas Department of Wildlife Parks and Tourism and will be used to help guide future conservation management decisions regarding ornate box turtles at both the state and national level.

For additional information about the Ornate Box Turtle Project, contact Dennis Dinwiddie at or 785-383-6784.