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Endangered turtle with an ‘everlasting smile’ in Cook County

A group gathered Wednesday morning at a Southland nature spot to culminate a yearlong project that brought together representatives from Cook and DuPage counties, the Shedd Aquarium, and state and federal officials.

But it could be 15 years before they know if they were successful.

A contingent of small turtles was at the heart of the effort, offspring of a Blanding’s turtle that surprised naturalists when it was found last summer near Park Ridge, an area where its species hadn’t been spotted in decades.

Rare enough to have landed on the endangered list in Illinois in 2009, Blanding’s turtles are among the region’s more lovable amphibians.

“They’re pretty adorable,” said Matt O’Connor, a senior staff veterinarian with the Shedd Aquarium in Chicago. “Blanding’s are beautiful turtles. They have this everlasting smile, the way the yellow pattern is on their skin.”

It’s a charisma that adds another pressure to their population, to go along with habitat loss and immensely large populations of animals that love to eat their eggs and young, such as raccoons, opossums and skunks.

“They’re highly sought after in the pet trade and get illegally collected,” O’Connor said. “Due to their personality and the beauty of their shells, they’re sought after by poachers.”

Chris Anchor, a longtime wildlife biologist with the Forest Preserves of Cook County, said there are only two viable, breeding populations of Blanding’s turtles left in Cook County. They can be found in other areas, but in groups of one to three.

“Most are very old — 40 to 60 years, and have come to the end of their reproductive life,” he said. “They’re just waiting for you. It’s really sad. That’s how populations wave out.

“I’m entering my 41st year with the district. In that time, I’ve seen four populations disappear.”

That includes several in the northern reaches of the county and one formerly viable group in the Orland Park area.

Because of their hard shells and amphibious nature, adults are relatively safe from predators. But their eggs have a 90% mortality rate, O’Connor said. Besides unethical collectors, invasive shrubbery and urban mammals such as opossums, skunks and raccoons contribute to that hardship.

“Turtles have to leave the water to dig a hole and lay their eggs, and then cover them up and not be detected, and it has to be in full sun,” Anchor said. “Many of our areas look like a jungle, covered by European buckthorn and European honeysuckle. The turtles are all funneled into the same areas that have light.”

Unwitting humans play a role as well.

“Where do we have light all the time? By the roads. So we see these turtles get whacked on the roads all the time,” Anchor said. “They’re trying to lay eggs in the gravel by the side of the road. They all go to the same spot and the predators know where they’re going, so they walk the paths by the roadways, and the turtles are getting hit by cars. It’s a double whammy.”

That’s what made last year’s discovery of a female Blanding’s turtle along the Des Plaines River near Park Ridge all the more surprising.

“All the habitat has been destroyed,” Anchor said. “They need a specific, shallow, highly vegetated marsh to survive, and we have so few of those left in Cook County.”

It turned out the turtle was gravid with fertilized eggs, which didn’t necessarily mean the father was nearby. For one thing, male Blanding’s turtles work a circuit of sorts, ranging miles on a regular “milk run” where they’ve found willing female partners before, he said. Also, female amphibians have an ability to store “sperm sacks” for a period of time, which is weird.

In any case, the area where she was found was “no place for a mother to survive, or for the babies to survive,” Anchor said. So county officials received state permission to move her “where other turtles were still hanging on, and there was a possibility of them adding to the population.”

That turned out to be at a preserve in the Southland where volunteers have been working to clear vegetation from the shoreline of a marshy area and otherwise enhance the area for the benefit of Blanding’s.

That suited O’Connor, the Shedd veterinarian. He said the aquarium is active in conservation projects all over the world, but his favorite projects are those close to home.

“I’ve always been most passionate about work done here around Chicago,” he said. “Who are we to go to other countries and tell them how to protect their wildlife if we don’t practice what we preach?”

The gravid turtle was brought to the Forest Preserve District of DuPage County — which has had a “head start” program for Blanding’s turtles for years — where the eggs could be safely laid and hatched. Then the baby turtles were taken in by the Shedd last August so they could “get to the size where it was less likely a skunk or raccoon would eat them and they’d stand a better chance of surviving in the wild,” O’Connor said.

On Wednesday, they got that chance to the delight of a crowd that had been working for a year to make it happen, including some of the volunteers who had helped clear out invasive plants at the release site.

“One of the perks of being involved with the project is getting to see them grow up from tiny quarter-sized hatchlings to being able to be released,” O’Connor said.

Shedd has been involved with DuPage County’s head start program for five years, but O’Connor said this first effort in Cook County was extra special.

“It’s a huge boost to get to see the fruits of our labor,” he said.

Still, he knows the results of Wednesday’s release won’t be known for years, as Blanding’s turtles are an especially long-lived species, and many take up to 15 years to reach reproduction age.

“We’re literally in year one,” he said. “Talk to us in 14 years and ask us how it’s going. You really have to have an organization like the Shedd or Cook County that’s invested in the long term, because it’s never a quick fix.”

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For Anchor, it’s another step toward maintaining the diversity of species in the state’s most populated county.

“Cook County is unique in that it’s not only the most populous county, but generally, it’s No. 1 or no. 2 in biodiversity,” he said. “You’d think it was somewhere down in the Shawnee (in southern Illinois), but it’s not. Typically, it’s us. … We have so many habitat types that come together around Lake Michigan.”

Anchor is monitoring transmitters attached to more than 20 species in Cook County, including this new batch of 11 Blanding’s turtles, named for William Blanding, a pioneering American naturalist from the 1800s.

But even for a veteran wildlife biologist like Anchor, Wednesday’s release made for “a real feel-good kind of day.”

“Normally we get involved with projects because we know in the end it will be a good thing, but we don’t actually get to see it,” he said.

“This was one of those rare times when you get to complete the circle, and have a little baby turtle in your hands and let it go into a properly managed and rehabilitated habitat. It was a wonderful time.”

Landmarks is a weekly column by Paul Eisenberg exploring the people, places and things that have left an indelible mark on the Southland. He can be reached at [email protected]

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