By Meg Dickinson
CHAMPAIGN — Booker T. Washington STEM Academy has a new reptile — but it is not a class pet.
The Champaign school is hosting Snappy the alligator snapping turtle for a year or less as a part of Operation Endangered Species.
The program has a few schools in Illinois working with the Illinois Department of Natural Resources to house the turtles before they’re let go in the wild.
Students, teachers and faculty members welcomed Snappy at an assembly Friday, which included a song, a play and a shadow puppet show that showed how alligator snapping turtles catch food. Students sitting in the gym saw live video of the turtle on an interactive chalkboard; Snappy has a tank in the school’s office and didn’t join the students at the assembly.
Tara Bell, the school’s STEM specialist, will care for the turtle, but said the school’s students will learn about it while it’s there. “As a STEM school, we want them to be inspired and interested by science and applications of science,” she said.
Champaign’s science curriculum for first and fourth grades already has a focus on animals, and the fourth grade has a focus on endangered species. Bell said the school will work with the district’s science curriculum coordinator to integrate Snappy into special lessons, as well. However, just because they’re learning from Snappy doesn’t mean they’ll be handling the turtle.
Martha Henss, the school’s STEM coordinator, laid down the rules at Friday’s assembly: Don’t feed the turtle, don’t touch it and don’t open its cage.
“We want him to be safe, and we want you to be safe,” she told students. Instead, students will take notes and learn about why the turtle is there.
“What we get to do is be scientists,” she told students. “The thing scientists do is observe.”
And while an alligator snapping turtle sounds ferocious, the species is safe to have in schools, said Joe Kath, the Department of Natural Resources’ endangered species project manager. “Alligator snappers are actually quite docile,” Kath said. “You can hold them.”
Alligator snappers are different than the common snapping turtle — they’re not aggressive and are “sit-and-wait predators.”
They’ll sit at the bottom of a river or stream with their mouths open, he said. Their tongues have a “fleshy projection” that acts like a lure, and if a fish swims in, they’ll quickly bite down on it.
Classroom tanks are full of live fish for the turtles, Kath said, although their diets are sometimes supplemented to help them gain weight. “Ninety-nine percent of what they eat is dependent on what they’re able to capture, just as they would have to do in the wild,” Kath said.
The Department of Natural Resources created a science-based plan for helping the alligator snapping turtle population in Illinois recover. The agency got schools involved when Paul Ritter, a teacher at Pontiac Township High School, approached it about getting his class involved in helping to save endangered species. From there, Operation Endangered Species was born.
Ritter said the idea for a collaboration came after he met Brady Barr, a herpetologist and host of “Dangerous Encounters” on the Nat Geo Wild channel, at an Illinois Science Teachers Association conference, and they talked about a program that would have students raising endangered species.
The program has used donations from Tetra, a company that sells aquariums and fish supplies, to house the alligator snapping turtles, and also received a $100,000 grant from State Farm. Kath said the Department of Natural Resources is applying for other grants as well.
The turtles will be released in southern Illinois, where they were prevalent 40 to 50 years ago.
The department hasn’t found any alligator snapping turtles in the wild since the early 1980s, Kath said, and so it considers the species “extirpated.”
“That was the primary reason for developing and implementing the recovery plan,” Kath said.
The program benefits students, though, because they’re able to help a native species recover, Kath said.
“When most people think of endangered species, they think of (those) located in Africa or South America, thousands of miles away,” Kath said. “This project really has a direct tie to the state of Illinois. People are contributing to the recovery of something literally in their own background.”
Kath said his department hopes to have students attend when alligator snappers are released into the wild, as another way to have them participate in the scientific process. “The students work directly with scientists to participate and get their hands dirty, and participate in the actual recovery process,” Kath said.
Ritter, the teacher who helped create the program, said Operation Endangered Species helps kids learn about the real world. At his school, students have written a curriculum to go with the program, as well as care guides for the turtles. Some business students wrote up a business model for how the program should work, and music students wrote a theme song for it. Art students created graphics for Operation Endangered Species, he said.
“It’s one of those lessons in life that you just can’t get out of a textbook. Let’s go change our world and not just talk about it,” he said. “It’s not about saving the whales; it’s about saving a species that is local and close to our communities.”
And because the program pairs students with those who work in the Department of Natural Resources, they’re getting experience in working with professional scientists.
“It’s not happening anywhere else. It’s extremely unique,” Ritter said, although he’s working to start the program in other states and even other countries. “It’s a new way of looking at things, a new way of getting kids excited about educating and getting them excited about their world.”
Getting to know the alligator snapping turtle
Scientific name: Macrochelys temminckii
Status: Endangered in Illinois. Previous last recorded sighting in 1984 in Union County.
Appearance: Gets its name from keels on its shell that look like ridges on alligator’s back.
Size: World’s largest freshwater turtle. Shells can exceed 30 inches in length, and males can weigh up to 200 pounds.
Range: Southeastern United States, extending along Mississippi River as far north as Iowa. In Illinois, once found along Mississippi, Ohio and Illinois rivers.
Habitat: Lakes, swamps, streams and slow-moving muddy bottom rivers.
Lifestyle: Fully aquatic, rarely leaving water to bask. “Sit-and-wait” predators; fish and other smaller creatures lured by “worm” in turtle’s mouth are crushed by its powerful jaws.
Life cycle: Females typically lay around 10 to 45 eggs once a year in spring. The temperature determines the sex of the hatchlings. Cooler temperatures produce males; higher temperatures, females. Hatchlings dig out after about 90 days. Alligator snapping turtles provide no parental protection or care.
Species’ decline: Over-harvesting and illegal collection have eliminated most populations.
Reintroduction: State to release alligator snapping turtles to strategic watersheds. Turtles play important check-and-balance role in lakes and rivers.
Source: Originally published in the News Gazette, February 2, 2013