The last time an alligator snapping turtle was seen in the wild in the state of Illinois was back in 1984.
The alligator snapping turtle (Macrochelys temminckii), a species not seen in Illinois since 1984, has been rediscovered in the state, giving hope that wild populations of the turtle exists.
In 2014, Illinois Natural History Survey herpetologist Chris Phillips was looking for a young male alligator snapping turtle that had been previously tagged and is part of a release program too bolster the populations of alligator snapping turtles in southwest Illinois. Phillips had put on a wetsuit and was looking for the male turtle when he happened upon a wild, female alligator snapping turtle in the creek.
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“I was just about out of breath when I felt the turtle shell,” Phillips said in a University of Illinois press release. “I thought I had found the male turtle I knew was there because I detected its radio signal. I felt along its back to where I thought the shell should end, but my hand just kept going.”
Phillips pulled the turtle out of the water and to his surprise, was looking at an alligator snapping turtle that was twice the length of the turtle he was seeking. The wild female turtle (confirmed by DNA analysis in a research paper published in the Southeastern Naturalist.) was a 22-pound, 15-inch long specimen that Phillips determined to be at least 18 years old.
The INHS for years has been asking the public’s help in sighting alligator snapping turtles in the state and have done extensive trapping in an effort to locate a Macrochelys temminckii. None of those efforts paid off until now. According to the INHS, only Union and Jackson counties have the habitat necessary for the turtle’s to survive, and if any can be located, next steps on preservation or reintroduction will be addressed.
“Bolstering a hidden population of an endangered species is better than starting a new population in the area,” said Ethan Kessler, a graduate student of natural resources and environmental sciences at the University of Illinois and a co-author of the study. “However, since no wild alligator snapping turtles have been found in Illinois since 1984, reintroduction efforts make sense.”
While finding the female turtle is good news, it doesn’t indicate that there is a population that could be self-sustaining, Kessler noted.
“Finding this individual does not indicate that there is a functional, stable population of wild alligator snapping turtles in Southern Illinois,” Kessler said. “When a population dies out, a single turtle may wander around like a zombie waiting for the end of its days.”
Time will determine how the researchers will proceed.
“If we succeed with our project in introducing a new, viable population of alligator snapping turtles, it’s likely that no one will see them,” Phillips said. “It’s not as if we’re studying bald eagles that soar above us. I may never know the fate of these turtles, but it’s cool to know that this wild space exists in Illinois.”