University researchers report first sighting in 30 years of rare alligator snapping turtle

By Daily Illini Staff Report

Chris Phillips, associate research program leader for the Illinois Natural History Survey, discovered a 22-pound, 15-inch-long female alligator snapping turtle in a creek in southern Illinois.

“We were shocked,” said Ethan Kessler, graduate student at the University and co-author of the study. “It was just about the last thing we expected to happen.”

This sighting is the first in 30 years of a wild alligator snapping turtle in Illinois. The species has been listed as threatened in the U.S.

This could be the last of its kind to survive in the wild without human interaction, and could represent a new hope for the state-endangered species, according to the researchers.

“Alligator snapping turtles are endangered in Illinois, and this was only the 17th individual found in the state since the 1800s,” Kessler said. “Our project goal is to create a self-sustaining population of alligator snapping turtles in Illinois.”

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Phillips was looking for a male alligator snapping turtle that had recently been released in the water with a radio transmitter on its back. It had been released in the area to bolster the state-endangered turtle population in southwest Illinois.

Phillips plucked the female alligator snapping turtle from the water, which was twice as long as the one he was looking for, and at least 18 years old. Since she had no tracking device, she was not one of the turtles that had been released into the area.

The team attached a radio transmitter to her back and marked her shell to track her. However, the batteries in the transmitter have died.

For several years, the team has released about 90 adult turtles into the creek with radio transmitters on their backs, so they can be relocated and tracked.

“We have confirmed genetically that the wild individual that we caught was from the region, so it gives us hope that there is still suitable habitat in Illinois for this species,” Kessler said. “Our next hurdle will be to figure out if these turtles will be able to successfully reproduce in the wild.”

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