The Story of LEGO® Turtle

The road to any recovery can be long. Many adult fans of LEGO® (AFOLs) turn to their brick collections to ease the stress. Additionally, hospitals use LEGO® kits to help brighten the lives of sick children. However, mankind is not the only beneficiary of LEGO® therapy it seems. Recently, the Maryland Zoo found a new use for the iconic toy. To save the life of a grievously injured wild turtle, the zoo turned to LEGO® Technic elements. True North Bricks interviewed Dr. Ellen Bronson, Senior Director of Animal Health, Conservation, and Research at the zoo to learn more. This is the story of LEGO® Turtle.

The Story of LEGO® Turtle has a happy ending, shown here with the turtle back in the wild.
LEGO® Turtle sporting a radio transmitter following his rehabilitation (photo courtesy of the Maryland Zoo).

LEGO® Turtle is an Eastern box turtle (Terrapene carolina carolina). The IUCN Red List classifies the species as vulnerable. Additionally, its population is declining. Currently, Eastern box turtles live primarily in the eastern United States. Populations exist from Michigan and Maine in the north through Florida and Texas in the south. There are reports of fragmented populations in Mexico as well. Sadly, Canada declared the Eastern box turtle officially extirpated in 2014. This means all populations of the species in Canada died out. However, the Haudenosaunee First Nations have a long history with the species, and a turtle sighting occurred near Montreal in 1988. The species appears to have been primarily southern Ontarian and extirpated due to human development. In fact, the main threats to the survival of these turtles today revolve around human activity. Agriculture, roadways, land development, and pollution are key factors.

The Eastern box turtle is a vulnerable species facing population decline.

LEGO® Turtle in his wheelchair.
LEGO® Turtle in his wheelchair (photo courtesy of the Maryland Zoo).

LEGO® Turtle is native to Druid Hill Park in Baltimore, Maryland. He has been known to the Maryland Zoo since 2000. At the time, LEGO® turtle was already an adult. The zoo documented him in the wild as part of the Druid Hill Park Eastern box turtle monitoring project. This zoo-run initiative has been studying the movements of wild box turtles since the 1990s. The goal is to better understand Eastern box turtles to properly conserve the species. Sadly, in 2018, LEGO® Turtle became another casualty of human activity.

LEGO® Turtle in his wheelchair.
Overhead view of the Technic elements supporting LEGO® Turtle (photo courtesy of the Maryland Zoo).

According to Dr. Bronson, a car probably ran over LEGO® Turtle. While the park boasts 745 acres for turtles to roam, roadways also crisscross the natural space. Roads pose massive, dangerous barriers to the movement of small species like turtles. A zoo employee found LEGO® Turtle in the park with multiple plastron fractures. The plastron is the underside of a turtle’s shell. Bronson states “the injuries to his shell were severe. While turtles can survive minor shell injuries and heal on their own, his would not have been survivable.”

Without intervention, LEGO® Turtle would not have survived his injuries.

The Story of LEGO® Turtle involves a wheelchair built from Technic elements.
LEGO® Turtle in his wheelchair (photo courtesy of the Maryland Zoo).

Given the extent of LEGO® Turtle’s injuries, I asked if it would not have been better to let nature run its course. After all, the resources needed to save one critically injured turtle would surely benefit many more through conservation action. However, Bronson maintains it was the right thing to do. She admits that the question of whether to rehabilitate is one the zoo constantly struggles with. But in this case, “this turtle was directly harmed by humans. We are already greatly altering the population of this species by human-caused factors. So, generally we do make the effort to intervene if the cause is human-made.”

A preliminary model of the LEGO® wheelchair (photo courtesy of the Maryland Zoo).

Additionally, Bronson believes that Eastern box turtles will benefit as a species from this act of kindness. “The other important outcome of this specific case is the unexpected attention that [LEGO® Turtle] has received. It has given us the chance to highlight the plight of turtles and the threats they face. This will hopefully result in better awareness and protection for box turtles so that such treatments in other turtles can be avoided.”

This turtle is an ambassador for his species, raising awareness for turtles everywhere.

LEGO® Turtle’s plastron held together by metal plates, sewing clasps, and surgical wire (photo courtesy of the Maryland Zoo).

LEGO® Turtle proved to be a challenging case for the Maryland Zoo’s veterinary team. Firstly, veterinarians needed metal plates, sewing clasps, and surgical wire to hold the shell together. However, since the fractures were on the turtle’s underside, the team also needed to devise a way to keep the plastron elevated without compromising the turtle’s ability to move. Garrett Fraess, a veterinary student at the time, came up with the solution: LEGO® bricks. With the help of a LEGO® enthusiast friend, they designed a wheelchair for the turtle using Technic elements. The design consisted of 72 bricks and served to support LEGO® Turtle from above. Additionally, epoxy attached the wheelchair to the sides of the shell. The result allowed the turtle to pull himself along on wheels using his front legs, while still being able to retract into his shell when feeling threatened.

An interview with Garrett Fraess, designer of the LEGO® Wheelchair (video courtesy of the Maryland Zoo).

LEGO® Turtle faced a long road to recovery. Turtles have naturally slow metabolism. Consequently, they heal slowly. He was in rehabilitation for two years. However, on July 1, 2020, LEGO® Turtle took his first cautious steps back into the wilderness of Druid Hill Park. According to Dr. Bronson, LEGO® Turtle completely recovered from his injuries with no foreseen complications. She adds, “we will be following him via a VHF transmitter over the coming months to ensure that he does well.”

The story of LEGO® Turtle reached a happy ending on July 1, 2020.

Video showing the removal of the wheelchair before brumation (video courtesy of the Maryland Zoo).

The wonderful uses that people find for LEGO® bricks never cease to amaze. In this case, a critically injured animal received a second shot at life through the ingenuity and kindness of the Maryland Zoo team. Incidentally, when asked if LEGO® bricks would feature in veterinary procedures moving forward, Dr. Bronson replied “we perform unusual surgeries and medical procedures in our zoo every day that require a lot of creativity and ingenuity. So, we will see!”

A happy ending to the story of LEGO® Turtle (video courtesy of the Maryland Zoo).

References and further reading concerning the story of LEGO® Turtle:

“Eastern box turtle (Terrapene carolina): COSEWIC assessment and status report 2014.” Committee on the Status of Endangered Wildlife in Canada (COSEWIC), Government of Canada, 2014, https://www.canada.ca/en/environment-climate-change/services/species-risk-public-registry/cosewic-assessments-status-reports/eastern-box-turtle-2014.html. Accessed 01 August 2020.

“The Maryland Zoo Releases Famous LEGO® Turtle to Native Habitat.” Maryland Zoo, 2020, https://www.marylandzoo.org/news-and-updates/2020/07/the-maryland-zoo-releases-famous-lego-turtle-to-native-habitat/. Accessed 01 August 2020.

Van Dijk, P.P. “Terrapene carolina (Eastern Box Turtle).” International Union for the Conservation of Nature, 2016, https://www.iucnredlist.org/species/21641/97428179. Accessed 01 August 2020.

Finally, special thanks to the Maryland Zoo and Dr. Ellen Bronson (Senior Director of Animal Health, Conservation, and Research) for taking part in the interview and providing media content. Additional thanks to Claire Aubel (Media Relations Manager) for arranging everything.

LEGO® Turtle’s first moments in nature following rehabilitation (photo courtesy of the Maryland Zoo).

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