Meet Willow the wood turtle (Glyptemys insculpta).
She arrived at Blandford Nature Center in 2004 and is likely at least 20 years old. In captivity, wood turtles can live more than 50 years. Wood turtles are very fond of earthworms and can lure the worms to the surface by tapping their shell on the ground or stomping their feet. Willow has injuries to her shell and is missing both front legs below the elbow. She cannot dig and damages her plastron as she walks so she is a permanent resident at the nature center.
With the help of teachers and students at the West Michigan Academy of Environmental Science, we set out to make prosthetics to protect Willow’s shell and improve her mobility. Using clay and Lego building blocks, the students determined the optimal height and placement for the prosthetics. Students tested wheels and flat skid plates. A skid plate with minimal contact area provided the most freedom of movement and protection.
The next step was to find an adhesive for our new prosthetics. Previously, epoxy has been used to apply transmitters or repair turtle shells. However, epoxy is exothermic when it sets, meaning it gives off heat as it hardens. This heat can damage the living tissue just under the keratin of the shell. Dr. Larry Majznerski and his team shared their expertise in light cured orthodontic adhesives. These specialized glues are durable and perfect for exposure to water. However, there is a fair amount of preparation time and some expense when using these adhesives. As Willow grows and sheds scutes, the prosthetics will need to be replaced. A fellow veterinarian, Dr. Katie Carron, enlisted the help of her husband Steven Lilly and his engineering knowledge. We decided upon 3M VHB tape rather than glue. This tape forms an instant near-permanent bond even on an uneven surface.
Dr. Chris Dykhouse, VMD volunteered his time and 3-D printer to make perfectly sized skid plates out of biodegradable plastic. These new prosthetics are light, durable and fit perfectly within one scute on the plastron. The small ground contact area minimizes drag. With the help of the young animal lovers in our families, the new skids are attached. Willow is practically running around once again.