Category Archives: Conservation Issues

Illinois School Hosts Endangered Turtle as Conservation Program

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

Turtle Nests Lost by Flooding in Australia

By Erika N. Chen-Walsh

turtleMon Repos Conservation Park is a turtle rookery located on Queensland’s central coast, 14 km east of Bundaberg in Australia. Mon Repos hosts the largest concentration of nesting marine turtles on the eastern Australian mainland and supports the most significant nesting population of the endangered loggerhead turtle in the South Pacific Ocean region. Successful breeding here is critical if the loggerhead species is to survive. Flatback, green and leatherback turtles also nest along the Bundaberg coast, but in much smaller numbers.

From November to March each year, adult turtles come ashore to lay eggs on Mon Repos beach. About eight weeks later young turtles emerge from the eggs and begin their journey to the sea.  Hatchlings usually leave their nests at night from mid January until late March.

During the last few days, Mon Repos has undergone adverse weather conditions and suffered localized flooding.  However, as the clean-up from the flooding gets underway in homes around Wide Bay, the loss of animals and wildlife is being discovered.

Mon Repos is home to hundreds of turtle hatchlings each year, with January and February being their peak nesting time.  As strong winds and floodwaters hit the coast, the small turtles had to fight the force of nature to survive.

Queensland Parks and Wildlife (QPWS) head ranger, Cathy Gatley says the clean-up has begun on eroded beaches which are covered in debris and rubbish including boats.

“Turtle nests that were incubating on the beach would be lost, we’re yet to assess exactly how many we’ve lost,” says Gatley.  More will be discovered over coming weeks as the clean-up continues.

Sea turtle conservation, including captive rearing,  is critical to the survival of the species.

Sources:  ABC Wide Bay, Wikipedia

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The Python Challenge: Let’s Look at the Numbers

By Erika N. Chen-Walsh

Herp Alliance blogged yesterday about the 2013 Florida Python Challenge that has been underway since January 12, 2013 and lasts until February 10th.  In the first two weeks of this event, more than 1,000 hunters had killed exactly 30 snakes, a very underwhelming result for those who speciously claim that there are as many as 150,000 Burmese pythons living wild in the Florida Everglades.  (With such a grandiose population, how come the army of 1,000 hunters cannot find them?)

Let’s take a look at the numbers.  Thirty snakes have been killed in 14 days.  This equates to 2.14 snakes per day.  Assuming that there are exactly 1,000 hunters in the Challenge, this means that each day, they have a 0.2% chance per day of killing a Burmese python wild in the Everglades.

If the grossly exaggerated “problem” of 150,000 Burmese pythons in the Everglades were correct, at the current kill rate, it would take these 1,000 hunters, working every single day, 192 years to kill them all, if they existed.

The numbers do not add up.  The numbers are not there because the pythons are not there.  As Andrew Wyatt testified before the US House Committee on Natural Resources, Subcommittee on Fisheries, Wildlife, Oceans and Insular Affairs on November 29, 2012:

The population of pythons peaked in summer 2009. This was followed quickly by a population crash in the winters of 2009 and 2010.The decline in python numbers since the summer 2009 peak have been significant. The Florida Fish & Wildlife Commission believes 30-50 percent of the remaining wild Burmese python population died in January and February 2010.

The “problem” of Burmese pythons in the Everglades has been exaggerated and embellished by the Animal Rights industry and political propaganda for ulterior motives.

As of 2009, over 192 invasive animal species (not including insects) have made their home in the Everglades (Ferriter et al., 2009).

feral catPythons tend to get more headlines than other species of animals because of animus toward snakes by the general public, animus that is fomented and encouraged by groups such as HSUS.  Seemingly innocuous animals like the island apple snail and Asiatic clam may be causing more damage to to the ecosystem of the Everglades.  Feral (and domestic) cats are one of the most detrimental invasive species in the Everglades (and elsewhere), yet there is no widespread call to outlaw cats.

This is not a problem that is limited to large constrictor owners, keepers and breeders.  If propaganda and embellished hysteria in the absence of factual data can fuel arms of the State and Federal Government to seek to limit private property rights, the ownership of all species of animals, both domestic and exotic is in jeopardy.

The time to act is now, and the community of reptile and amphibian breeders must come together in a cohesive, organized voice before there is nothing left for us to talk about.

A. eiselti, Odd Amphibian From Brazil

By Erika N. Chen-Walsh

Photo by Matt Roper

Discovered in Brazil in November 2011,  this unusual species gained its off-color nickname because of its appearance — a broad, rounded head atop a thick, cylindrical fleshy body. It isn’t a snake at all but an extremely rare, limbless amphibian.  The “penis snake” was first discovered in Brazil where engineers were building a dam in the Madeira River in Rondonia, according to Mongabay. Six of the unusual creatures were found at the time.

Biologist Julian Tupan identified the species as Atretochoana eiselti, a type of caecilian. It is has neither legs nor lungs and this aquatic animal is believed to breathe through its skin. Tupan, who is working with the company building the dam, disclosed what little is known about the “penis snake” to Brazil’s Estadao website, according to the U.K.’s The Sun.

“Of the six we collected, one died, three were released back into the wild and another two were kept for studies,” Tupan reportedly told Estadao. “Despite looking like snakes, they aren’t reptiles and are more closely related to salamanders and frogs. We think the animal breathes through its skin, and probably feeds on small fish and worms, but there is still nothing proven. The Amazon is a box of surprises when it comes to reptiles and amphibians. There are still much more to be discovered.”

Previously, the U.K.’s National History Museum stated that no living populations of the A. eiselti had been found and only two preserved specimens were known.

Photo by Matt Roper
Photo by Matt Roper
Photo by Matt Roper

Ecosystem-Level Consequences of Frog Extinctions

Streams that once sang with the croaks, chirps and ribbits of dozens of frog species have gone silent. They’re victims of a fungus that’s decimating amphibian populations worldwide.

Such catastrophic declines have been documented for more than a decade, but until recently scientists knew little about how the loss frogof frogs alters the larger ecosystem. A University of Georgia study that is the first to comprehensively examine an ecosystem before and after an amphibian population decline has found that tadpoles play a key role keeping the algae at the base of the food chain productive.

“Many things that live in the stream depend on algae as a base food resource,” said lead author Scott Connelly, a doctoral student who will graduate in December from the UGA Odum School of Ecology. “And we found that the system was more productive when the tadpoles were there.”

The results, which appear in the early online edition of the journal Ecosystems, demonstrate how the grazing activities of tadpoles help keep a stream healthy. The researchers found that while the amount of algae in the stream was more than 250 percent greater after the amphibian population decline, the algae were less productive at turning sunlight and nutrients into food for other members of the ecosystem. Without tadpoles swimming along the streambed and stirring up the bottom, the amount of sediment in the stream increased by nearly 150 percent, blocking out sunlight that algae need to grow.

The study is part of a larger effort known as the Tropical Amphibian Declines in Streams (TADS) project, which also involves researchers from Southern Illinois University, Drexel University and the University of Alabama. The project is now in its third round of funding by the National Science Foundation and was initiated by Catherine Pringle (UGA Odum School of Ecology) and Karen Lips (Southern Illinois University) in 2000 through a Small Grant for Exploratory Research (SGER) from the NSF. Connelly and Pringle are monitoring in-stream effects of the population decline on algae, while other team members are studying how the loss of frogs impacts other organisms and the transfer of energy between streams and the terrestrial communities that surround them. Preliminary data show that the number of snakes that feed on frogs, for example, has plummeted after the population decline.

“We were there before, during and after the extinction event and were able to look at the ecosystem and measure how it changed,” said Pringle, Distinguished Research Professor in the Odum School and study co-author. “Very rarely have scientists been able to do that with respect to any organism.”

The chytrid fungus responsible for declines has steadily marched southeast across Costa Rica and through much of Panama like a storm front, killing up to 90 percent of frogs in afflicted streams. In 2003, the team set up research sites on two streams in the pristine and lush highlands of Panama. One study site had already suffered a catastrophic amphibian decline, while the other had a healthy population but, based on its location, was directly in the path of the fungal disease.

In the first stage of their research, Connelly and Pringle assessed ecosystem changes that occur when tadpoles are experimentally excluded from small areas of both the healthy stream and the frogless stream. They found that the absence of the tadpoles resulted in more sediment and less productive algae.

In late 2004, frogs in the formerly healthy stream began dying. The team reassessed the stream and found that impact of the frog die-off was even greater than they had predicted in their exclusion studies. “We predicted the direction of the change,” Pringle said, “but underestimated its magnitude.”

The UGA research team is continuing to monitor the health of the streams to get valuable, long-term data. So far the stream has not rebounded. “It’s still sad going back,” Connelly said, to which Pringle added: “Once the frogs die, it’s like an incredible silence descends over the whole area. It’s eerie.”

To date, scientists have not found a way to stop the spread of the fungus in the wild. Broadly applying a fungicide to an entire watershed, Connelly said, would kill beneficial fungi that are necessary for a healthy ecosystem.

But scientists can cure individual frogs in captivity by simply swabbing them with a fungicide. Connelly has worked to protect frogs through Amphibian Ark, a global effort supported by zoos, botanical gardens, aquariums and research institutions that aims to ensure the survival of amphibians by collecting and breeding them. The Atlanta Botanical Garden is one of the key breeding sites.

“The one speck of hope is that if we’re able to collect some of these rare animals, we can cure them,” Connelly said. “As long as we have the money to keep a breeding program going, in the future it might be possible to reintroduce them into the wild.”


University of Georgia (2008, October 23). Ecosystem-level Consequences Of Frog Extinctions. ScienceDaily. Retrieved January 26, 2013, from­/releases/2008/10/081016124252.htm

Herp Nation Radio Network's Dan Krull interviews Andrew Wyatt about the Herp Alliance


From the Herp Nation web site:

The Herp Nation Radio Network’s Dan Krull talks with Andrew Wyatt about his resignation from USARK that was first reported to you here on Dan asks the questions the herp community wants answers to about Andrew’s departure, and also what the future holds for his new organization. Herp Nation has reached out to USARK and will bring you that information as soon as it becomes available. Listen now….