Long-Lost Alligator Snapping Turtle Rediscovered 30 Years After Thought to Be Extinct in Illinois

Alligator Snapping Turtle
Christopher Evans on Flickr

For the first time in 30 years, scientists have caught a wild alligator snapping turtle in Illinois. The animal had been thought locally extinct until this new sighting.

Scientists have been releasing tagged alligator snapping turtles for years into rivers in Illinois to assist whatever wild population remained or replace it if it had indeed gone extinct. However, a scientist recently picked up a wild, untagged, 18-year-old female, raising questions about their local population. Local paper The Southern Illinoisan reported the story.

Conservationists have been looking desperately for alligator snapping turtles in Illinois waters, asking people to report incidents and setting up live traps for them. However, these animals are aquatic and elusive, so it's hard to know just how many are swimming around in the bottoms of rivers.

In this case, the researchers found the female by accident. One diver had been searching out a male that they had tagged with a radio transmitter. After the wetsuited University of Illinois graduate student reached down to grab the tracked young male, he came up with a whopping 22-pound female, more than twice the size of the animal that he had been attempting to capture.

Biologists at the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign published the finding in the journal Southeastern Naturalist.

Because the male and female were so close together, the researchers worry that they may have been interrupting a mating session. And mating is exactly what conservationists want—for the alligator snapping turtles they released to make lots of little alligator snapping turtles.

Alligator snapping turtles have “vermiforms,” small appendages that look like worms, in their mouths, which lure prey into their mouths so they can bite down with their sharp jaws. Benny Mazur on Flickr

The alligator snapping turtle is endangered in the states of Illinois, Kentucky, Indiana and Missouri. They also live in more sustainable populations in a few other states. According to the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN) Red list, they are "vulnerable," but not endangered.

These animals are named for their sharp, snapping beaks; long tails; and spiny plates, making them look similar to small alligators with beaks and shells. Like all turtles and tortoises, their spines are attached to their shells, so they can't leave their homes behind. Alligator snapping turtles are aquatic and almost never venture onto land, except for nesting females.

After capturing the female, they tagged and gave a radio transmitter to her. They tested her DNA, demonstrating that she was an Illinois resident, and not traveling in from another state. Then they released her, hoping to track her movements for future years. But the battery in her transmitter died, so they may never see her again.