The river valley is quiet. It’s a sunny day in June, and Evelyn Albrecht ’25 has just given the wildlife detection dog named Newt his search command. Something switches on in the 4-year-old Labrador retriever’s brain. He’s in work mode now, bounding along the river bank in an erratic zig-zag pattern, deploying his stellar snout to sniff out wood turtles and help aid conservation efforts in Rhode Island.
“Once he’s in scent, his tail wags fast at a 180-degree angle. He’ll tend to slow down and pay closer attention to his surroundings,” Albrecht says. “You can see the shift in his thinking. If he’s in the same area as a turtle, he’ll sniff the ground more meticulously. He looks more sure of himself.”
On this day, Newt alerts the team to a juvenile, or a half-grown, specimen. It was the first Albrecht and Newt found, and the first that researchers from the Rhode Island Department of Environmental Management (DEM) had ever found in that area—an indication of a stable population with the potential to support future generations. This find was a cause for celebration, as wood turtles are among the state’s rarest species of turtles.
“Wood turtles are classified by the International Union for Conservation of Nature as endangered,” explains Albrecht. “We want to make sure their populations are healthy, their habitat is protected, and that they can access the resources they need to survive.”
Both Newt and Albrecht are part of a research effort that began at St. Lawrence University under biology professor Kristine Hoffmann. Hoffmann is a herpetologist, which means that she studies reptiles and amphibians, with a particular concentration on conservation biology.
Today, Newt has several years of turtle-tracking experience in Vermont, Massachusetts, the North Country, and Rhode Island, where Hoffmann and her students have teamed up with local researchers for the past two summers. Every detection he makes adds to a growing body of population data that will help inform conservation efforts for years to come.
Sniffing Out Results
Hoffmann has been searching for turtles since her days as a seventh-grade citizen scientist in Massachusetts, trekking through swamplands with her father as part of a local project to locate spotted turtles.
“We started trying to find out more about this population of turtles by just looking for them a few times a week whenever we had spare time. I’d be sitting in this swamp feeling around with my feet, looking for a 6-inch turtle, thinking a dog could do this so much better,” she recalls.
Several decades later, there’s mounting evidence—thanks in no small part to Hoffmann and her team of student researchers—pointing to truth in her early hunch. This summer alone, Newt, Hoffmann, Albrecht, and biologists from the Rhode Island DEM recorded finding 20 different individual wood turtles, including five juvenile specimens.
According to Hoffmann, human teams tend to find less than a third as many. Preserving species like wood turtles means keeping ecosystems intact. They play a role in the food chain, feeding on bugs, worms, and plant matter. According to Albrecht, they also disperse seeds and stir up sediment to keep river water moving and refreshed.
“They play a number of important ecological roles in their habitats,” says Albrecht. “It’s important for us to do what we can to ensure they stay there and continue to keep those ecosystems running smoothly.” Albrecht, a biology major and an art and art history minor, received a Saints Start Challenge Grant to conduct the survey work in Rhode Island, which also happens to be their home state. “It was rewarding to help direct a project like this and feel like you’re contributing to something important,” they say. “It really got me thinking that I want to pursue more opportunities to conduct fieldwork and interact with the world in a way that helps animals live and survive.”
Student Handlers Take Center Stage
Newt arrived on campus in 2019. His full name is Newton Hoffmann-McConnell, though his nickname is fitting for a team of herpetologists.
Students have been critical to his turtle population research efforts from the start. He was first trained by Hannah Duffey ’22 to find eastern spadefoot toads. When Julia Sirois ’23 took over as his primary handler in the fall of 2021, she decided to shift Newt’s focus to wood turtles and guided him through his first summer at work in Rhode Island.
“I remember being incredibly anxious before the project started because it was going to be my first time in the field and Newt’s first time detecting turtles,” she says.
In recent years, housing and commercial construction in Rhode Island has accelerated, in large part due to the local government’s efforts to loosen restrictions and streamline approval processes. Without the work of conservationists and biologists, rapid development can disrupt turtle habitats and put rare species like wood turtles at risk before scientists are able to study them.
“The scientists in Rhode Island wanted to know more about the existing population. The state needs to know, if we have a good population, how good is it? How stable is this big population? They also want to monitor that big population because if it starts to crash, that means huge trouble for keeping a species,” says Hoffmann.
Alongside biologists from the DEM and the Roger Williams Park Zoo, Sirois and Hoffmann chose some sites where wood turtles were already known to live and others where the team suspected they might be, based on the environments they’re known to inhabit. Hoffmann and her team are careful not to disclose specific survey locations so as not to inadvertently tip off poachers who seek to seize brightly colored wood turtles for the illegal pet trade.
“The moment Newt found a turtle during our first survey, all my worries washed away. I knew that all the days and hours of training were going to pay off,” says Sirois. “Newt knows that if we find a turtle, we get to play fetch. It’s very rewarding to turn what he perceives as a game into invaluable data that will ultimately be used to help protect vulnerable species.”
For Hoffmann, one of the most rewarding aspects of her ongoing research with Newt is the opportunity to give students hands-on experience and autonomy in the work they do as budding scientists.
“The mentorship aspect is important to me,” says Hoffmann. “I can think back to the mentors that influenced my career and helped me figure out who I wanted to be and what I wanted to do. I try to be that kind of person. I want the student to be the center of attention, especially if they’re designing the study and they’re doing their own work.”
Sirois graduated in the spring of 2023 and credits her time with Newt and Hoffmann as the inspiration for her biggest career goals. She’s already trained her own yellow Labrador retriever, Obi-Wan, to detect wood turtles and knows that wildlife conservation is her calling. In addition to working with her own pup, Julia is interning with the K9Sensus Foundation in Iowa, where she’s learning more about training and handling tracking dogs.
“Working with Newt for the past few years was an incredible experience. We grew up together, learned together, and accomplished a lot,” she says. “Connecting with a dog, especially one who is your partner in a working capacity creates a special relationship. Newt is a special guy.”
Big Dog On Campus
There are several characteristics that make Newt qualified for his job, which often requires muddy work in dense shrubs and shallow water. His fur is short and copper-colored, which helps to keep him cool on long, hot days of tracking, and makes it easier to spot and remove ticks and burrs. He’s a good swimmer and dries off quickly. He’s comfortable working at night and doesn’t mind wearing the required gear, including boots, goggles, and a protective vest. He’s strong and powerful, but not too large that Hoffmann couldn’t carry him in the event of an emergency.
Beyond his physical advantages, Newt has a single quality in particular that helps him excel—a one-track mind, and its focus is not necessarily on the turtles he’s searching for, though finding one means he’s closer to getting the thing he covets most.
“As he approaches the source of an odor, his body language changes. He knows he’s going to get his tennis ball,” says Hoffmann. “He gets all excited, but he doesn’t actually care about the turtle. He cares about the reward. He’s obsessed,” says Hoffmann.
When Newt detects and locates a specimen, he alerts his handler by lying down with the turtle between his front paws. Sometimes, if the turtle is hidden in thick vegetation, his handler will direct Newt to use his muzzle to point it out in the grass. The researchers use GPS monitoring to track his movement and record his finds. The characteristics that make Newt an excellent tracking dog also make him a high-maintenance housemate. He’s charming, talented, adorable, intelligent, athletic, and, according to Hoffmann, a huge responsibility.
“Newt is my problem child,” says Hoffmann. “Without adequate exercise and work, he’s bouncing off the walls.” To help Newt exercise his mind and his body when he’s not at work, Hoffmann and her students run training exercises in forested areas and low-mow zones around campus. He also logs miles on the treadmill in Hoffmann’s lab.
“Sometimes it’s the first thing we do. We get in, I put my bag down, we go to the lab, he runs for 10 minutes, and then maybe I can check my emails without him on my lap,” she says. Now that Sirois has graduated and Evelyn’s summer research in Rhode Island has concluded for the time being, Newt is in the capable hands of Jada Masiclat ’24, a biology and history double major who has been conducting wood turtle surveys in the North Country between volleyball practices. She says that Newt has become something of a celebrity around the Johnson Hall of Science at St. Lawrence. He’s not only a symbol of Laurentians making a difference, but of the kind of work that’s possible with student-faculty collaboration.
“He’s a huge part of the bio community at St. Lawrence,” she says. “Everyone knows Newt.”