First wild alligator snapping turtle in state in years found

CHAMPAIGN — Researchers are reporting the first sighting of a wild alligator snapping turtle in Illinois in 30 years.

In a news release, the University of Illinois says that state Natural History Survey herpetologist Chris Phillips was looking for a young male alligator snapping turtle that had recently been released in Union County’s Clear Creek when he discovered a 22-pound female that was at least 18 years old.

The team of U of I researchers reports the find in the journal Southeastern Naturalist.

“I was just about out of breath when I felt the turtle shell,” Phillips said. “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 plucked from the water the female alligator snapping turtle that was twice as long as the one he was looking for. Since she had no tracking device, she was not one of the turtles that had been released into the area. DNA tests showed that she belonged at the site and was not a lone traveler from a southern state. Southern Illinois is at the northern end of the turtle species’ range.

Now researchers are trying to determine whether the discovery of the state-endangered species offers hope about the animal’s survival on its own—or is the last of its kind to have survived in Illinois without human intervention.

“Finding this individual does not indicate that there is a functional, stable population of wild alligator snapping turtles in Southern Illinois,” said Ethan Kessler, a graduate student of natural resources and environmental sciences at the University of Illinois and a co-author of the study. “When a population dies out, a single turtle may wander around like a zombie waiting for the end of its days.”

It’s also not clear how much help this particular turtle will be because after researchers attached a radio transmitter to its back for tracking, the transmitter battery died.

–Associated Press with Staff reports. This story has been updated.

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