A scientist searching for a young male alligator snapping turtle that was put in a Southern Illinois creek at least a year ago instead grabbed a 22-pound adult female, raising hopes for those trying to protect a creature that hadn't been spotted in the area for three decades.
Illinois Natural History Survey herpetologist Chris Phillips called his finding of the turtle, at least 18 years old, a "move in the right direction" in the effort to save the state-endangered species.
The discovery was chronicled in an article in this month's Southeastern Naturalist co-authored by Ethan Kessler, a graduate student of natural resources and environmental sciences at the University of Illinois.
"It gives us hope that reproduction is happening," Kessler said.
Still, both Kessler and Phillips aren't quite sure what exactly the find says about these secretive creatures that have been around for millions of years. This particular turtle that was living in Union County's Clear Creek, where scientists have been releasing turtles in Union County's Clear Creek because no wild alligator turtles had been found in Illinois since 1984.
"Maybe there is a hidden population we don't know about," Kessler said, adding that it's more likely that this turtle was just the last survivor of what was once a bigger population of turtles or a hearty traveling turtle that somehow made its way up the Mississippi River.
However it got there, before it was found by Phillips it found at least one other turtle. The scientists know that because on the day Phillips reached down and grabbed the female turtle he thought he was reaching down for a smaller male turtle that has been wearing a radio transmitter ever since scientists released it into the same creek at least a year ago.
It was because the water is so murky, Phillips had no way of knowing that he was grabbing the bigger turtle and not the smaller one that was so close that it was ultimately pulled out of the water in the same spot.
That leaves both Kessler and Phillips wondering if Phillips was interrupting the kind of activity that a species needs to increase its numbers.
"He (the smaller turtle) had sidled up to her so maybe they were making plans," said Phillips.
Sadly — at least for the scientists — just what plans the turtles were making may never be known thanks to a failure in technology.
"We put a transmitter (on the larger turtle) but the battery died three months later," Phillips said. "She's in there but there is no way we're going to find her."