PROVIDENCE, R.I. (WPRI) — Newton is a dog who doesn’t need to come out of his shell.
The 3-year-old red fox Labrador retriever, nicknamed “Newt,” is energetic, playful and on a mission to sniff out turtles all across Rhode Island.
His favorite reward? Tennis balls.
“He’d sell his soul for tennis balls,” Saint Lawrence University student Julia Sirois said.
Sirois is Newt’s handler, and tells 12 News she and her canine companion have been in Rhode Island for the past five weeks looking for turtles.
She explained that Newt’s keen sense of smell makes it easier for him to find the turtles, especially in hard-to-reach places like thick brush.
“He’s trained to lay down when he finds a turtle, and he stays put until I come up and confirm it’s the correct target,” Sirois explained. “Then, I throw the ball for him a handful of times while I record the data.”
Newt learned to sniff out turtles last fall. Sirois said once she and Newt’s owner, Saint Lawrence conservation biology professor Kristine Hoffmann, learned of a turtle research project underway in Rhode Island, they decided to offer their assistance.
Noah Goldthwait, a University of Rhode Island student, is leading the research project. His goal is to survey the state’s most threatened turtle species.
“We’re trying to assess the population of certain turtle species in Rhode Island,” he explained.
Once a turtle is found, either by Newt or one of the other research participants, Goldthwait records the species, weight and location before setting it free.
There are seven native turtle species in Rhode Island, four of which are considered “species of greatest conservation need,” according to the Rhode Island Department of Environmental Management (DEM).
That’s why Newt’s work is extremely important, although he only cares about one thing.
“If you had food in one hand and a tennis ball in the other, he’s going to pick the tennis ball every time,” Sirois said.
Sirois and Newt have another week’s worth of turtle-tracking ahead of them before returning home.
Both universities are working in collaboration with the DEM, the Rhode Island Natural History Survey and Roger Williams Park Zoo to complete the research.