Endangered turtles reintroduced in test program

Brian DeNeal

Heritage Biologist Scott Ballard touched the alligator snapping turtle's jaw. Like a trained pet, the turtle popped its mouth open wide and held it open.

Ballard held the little snapper, 5 or 6 years old, in his right hand and a common snapping turtle in his left to point out the differences in the two species.

The alligator snapper wriggled its wet pink lure at the bottom of its mouth while the common snapping turtle shut its eyes against the harsh afternoon sun. The lure attracts fish who think it is a worm -- and attracts a reporter's pen. Would it bite on an ink pen?

"You bet it would," Ballard said.

"The big 100-pounders have been known to break broomsticks."

IDNR law enforcement seized the turtle Ballard held from a reptile dealer who was planning to sell the animal without a license. Now, the turtle and a 47-year-old turtle are educational tools for IDNR.

There are 13 more alligator snappers crawling and wriggling their lure tongues across the bottom of the Little Black Slough Swamp in the Cache River State Natural Area.

The 13 turtles have transmitters glued to their spiny, alligator-like backs with marine epoxy as part of an experimental pilot study for a possible reintroduction of the turtles to Southern Illinois.

The state endangered turtles have been found region in the past, but not for many years. The most recent turtle finding was in the 1980s in Clear Creek in Alexander County.

"Historically, they were in the Big Muddy River and on the west side in the Mississippi River, some in Cairo and Metropolis," Ballard said.

No one knows if at one time the turtles were established in deep Southern Illinois or if those found just wandered up the Mississippi River from Louisiana. They have bred in the Missouri Bootheel, Ballard said, but there is no historic record they bred in Illinois.

Biologists have documented alligator snapping turtle eggs laid in Illinois, but did not test them to determine if they were fertile. Turtles, like chickens, sometimes lay infertile eggs.

The initial phase of the pilot study is to determine if the young turtles can live in the Illinois climate year-round.

The Wildlife Preservation Fund pays $5,000 for the project. The fund is a checkoff on income tax forms that benefits study and habitat improvement to benefit endangered or threatened species.

Eight of the turtles are about 2 years old with a 4- to 6-inch diameter. Five are sub-adults with a diameter of more than a foot.

"What we've done in the Cache is a pilot to see if these turtles can survive over winter," Ballard said.

"If we don't get the percentage to over-winter and if in a second pilot they are not over-wintering, it's not a good effort."

But if the young turtles survive and a second pilot study has a good survival rate, then maybe Southern Illinois can again lay claim to being the northern range of these unique reptiles.

There is no record of the turtles having existed in the Cache River area.

IDNR chose the Little Black Slough in the Cache River because it is a protected area where there is no chance someone might catch one of the turtles on a rod or trot line.

IDNR contracts with Lori White, who tracked turtles using radio transmitters for a master's degree thesis. The state has White tracking the turtles twice a week. Accounting for all 13 turtles can be quite time consuming and labor intensive. It takes White between nine and 14 hours to account for all 13.

"It depends on how far they have moved. They may get in a log or in the base of a tree. They'll crawl in there and may hang out for a few days -- or I may have to canoe a quarter mile to find them," White said.

"A lot of times, I'm finding them associated with large mats of vegetation."

Unlike common snapping turtles that are often on land, alligator snapping turtles stay submerged almost all of their lives. They are usually in 3 to 4 feet of water and may be in deeper water on particularly hot days.

"It is not a turtle you'll find basking. It doesn't really swim; it mainly walks along the bottom," White said.

The larger turtles are moving greater distances and fairly frequently. The younger ones are beginning to move more now that the water is warm. Sometimes a turtle will move 500 meters from where she last located it, but that is rare. The maximum distance she can pick up the signal is 500 meters.

Eventually, the turtles will stick their pointy snouts above the water to breathe, but they take a breath rarely enough White almost never sees them.

"In two-and-a-half years working on my master's there was only one time I saw a turtle come up to get a breath," White said.

Females will climb up onto land to lay eggs.

The turtles sexually mature at age 18, which is part of the reason they are so rare. Humans are the only predators of the giant turtles that may reach up to 150 pounds, but the younger turtles are vulnerable.

"Otters are predators. The 4- to 6-inch ones are susceptible to wading birds, herons and egrets and maybe large fish," White said.

If a turtle is next to the shore, a raccoon could grab it and even a large alligator snapper will kill a younger one.

Alligator snapping turtles and common snapping turtles generally do not get along, Ballard said. Both exist in the Bootheel area of Missouri, but a large alligator snapper will drive all common snappers away. The larger alligator snappers can crush a common snapper's shell with their jaws.

White's journey to find the turtles begins by opening locked gates and riding on an all-terrain vehicle to the swamp. In certain areas she can wade in, but she is usually in a canoe with her husband or a helper aiding in navigation. The day is a strenuous one, paddling around downed logs and vegetation. She is always cautious approaching logs because water moccasin snakes are numerous in the swamp. The snakes are not aggressive. She looks carefully before putting down her hand or foot on a log.

"They'll stop, freeze, look at you and go the other way. I just stop what I'm doing, walk slowly and I've never had a problem," White said.

She puts in these long days because she loves reptiles, especially the alligator snapping turtles.

"These turtles are amazing, beautiful turtles to begin with. They are not as defensive as common snapping turtles. When it gets out of the water it's got all its weight to deal with. The larger they are the more lazy they are because of the amount of effort they have to put forth," White said.

The turtles may look intimidating as they get up to 30 or 40 pounds, but will only bite if they are eating or if someone is menacing them.

"They are mainly lethargic. No, nobody has anything to worry about. They are not a concern," White said.

White said most herpetologists are geared toward snakes and alligators. She sees the alligator snapping turtles as the underdog of the herpetology world, rarely seen, rarely adventurous, but impressive in its own way.

"I really like it. They are worth preserving, making sure they are around for their importance in the food chain. Without it we would have a great loss," White said.

One role turtles play in the food chain is in ridding waters of dead or sick fish. Common snapping turtles help the health of pond in this way, Ballard said.

White also enjoys observing reactions when people hear she is studying the creature.

"It's a pretty big animal and I'm a pretty small person. I get asked that a lot, why such a small person works with such large turtles. It's been a lot of fun working on it," White said.

Brian DeNeal can be reached at (618) 253-7146, ext. 230 orbdeneal@yourclearwave.com.