Ryan Jacques knew how difficult it would be to find the turtles.
"We covered at least 80 to 100 acres of land searching for them," he said. "We were mentally prepared for how tough it would be."
Jacques, a University of Wisconsin-Whitewater senior, was on an expedition to locate one of the state's endangered species.
"Not many people get to see these turtles in the wild," he said. "They're very unique."
He was looking for the ornate box turtle, a rare reptile in Wisconsin and the Upper Midwest. About five inches long and found in dry sand prairies and savannah habitats, it's the only land-dwelling turtle in the state.
"When they're young, the turtles are very susceptible to predators like raccoons and skunks," said Joshua Kapfer, assistant professor of biology. "These same mammals will raid turtle nests and eat the eggs."
Habitat loss and people collecting turtles as pets have exacerbated the problem.
To offset their declining numbers, the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources (DNR) is spearheading an effort to survey turtles in the wild and collect their eggs.
The eggs are then incubated in captivity and hatchlings are fed for several months until they grow large enough that they are unlikely to be eaten by predators.
Then they are released back to their natural site, giving them a head start at survival.
"The goal is to augment the population so that it can remain viable," Kapfer said. "However, the survival rate of these 'headstarted' turtles is a little difficult to assess, because they are so hard to find."
With the help of Boykin spaniels - known as "turtle dogs" - eight UW-Whitewater students, along with UW-Madison researchers and DNR conservation biologists, trekked across protected areas in southwest Wisconsin and found nearly a dozen turtles.
"We used a portable ultrasound unit to see if the turtles were carrying eggs, and some of them were," Jacques said. "Initially, it looks like the head start program is successful."
Jacques, from Escanaba, Mich., is focusing his studies on marine biology and freshwater ecology.
"It was neat working with DNR professionals outside the classroom to gain more knowledge and see how a rare species is doing," he said.
"It's invaluable applied, professional experience that prepares students for the next level in their careers," Kapfer said.
Rich learning experiences aren't limited to Wisconsin, or even the United States. Jacques will complete his senior year in Australia as part of UW-Whitewater's study abroad program.
"I'll be studying marine biology at Deakin University. I'm looking forward to doing more research projects that focus on other wildlife," he said.
He hopes to land a job in fishery biology, wildlife biology or conservation.
"The turtle experience opened my eyes that we have the potential to reach conservation goals using techniques that cause no harm to animals," he said. "It gives me hope for the future."
Top: UW-Whitewater students talk with John Rucker, who trained his Boykin spaniels to locate turtles.
Middle: A male ornate box turtle.
Bottom: UW-Whitewater biology students Ryan Jacques and Lindsay Summers record morphological data on captured box turtles with DNR Biologist Gregor Schuurman.