Students snap into action to save endangered turtles article by Luke Smucker

Pontiac, Ill. — “If five years ago, someone would have told me I’d have snapping turtles in my classroom, I would have said they were nuts,” said Pontiac Township High School science teacher Paul Ritter. “There is no way we could be doing that.”
Yet that was precisely the case Wednesday, as the science teacher and a number of students experienced the culmination of a project Ritter has been working on for months.
Ritter met reptile expert Dr. Brady Barr of National Geographic at this year’s Illinois Science Educator’s conference and discussed working together on a project that would integrate an endangered species into the classroom with kids and let them be the champions of the species.
“Barr and I picked four species and grabbed on to the Illinois Department of Natural Resources, worked on the project with them and set it up,” said Ritter.
DNR Endangered Species Manager Joe Kath of Springfield let the tension mount in Ritter’s crowded classroom as he opened a plastic cooler partially filled with water and pulled out one of the four small, dark brown, Alligator snapping turtles.
The four turtles, provided by the Peoria Zoo, were marked with bright dots upon their shells for easier identification of the two males and two females. Kath said the turtles are very docile, although they can look similar to the common snapping turtle. He explained that because the Alligator snapping turtle is a sit-and-wait predator that spends most of its life on the bottom of its habitat, it doesn’t pursue its prey. They simply eat whatever happens to be around them including nuts and vegetation.
The first turtle displayed, which the students affectionately began referring to as “Big B” because of his large blue dot, was set down on the counter and stayed motionless as students drew in for a closer look.
Not only were science students in the room, but students from Jennifer McCoy’s
English classes. Her students put together the curriculum, methods and methodologies; advanced rhetoric students did the proofreading; and Ritter’s science classes are doing data collection for the Endangered Species Project.
When asked why the students chose the Alligator Snapping Turtle of all creatures to work with, he grinned and said, “One of the kids said, ‘That turtle has a face only a mother could love.’ I responded, ‘Then that’s the one we’re going after,’ and with Dr. Barr’s help, we went through the process.”
The Alligator Snapping Turtle recovery efforts in Illinois started with Kath, when he wrote a formal recovery plan for the species. That plan acts as the endangered species program’s guiding document. It specifies what needs to be done, in steps, in order to help recover the turtle in this state.
Kath said this project was the perfect thing for students to get involved with. He explained that though there may be one or two Alligator Snapping Turtles lurking around in the muck at the bottom of the Mississippi and Illinois rivers, they are estimated to be very few in number. The turtles prefer a warmer climate, such as bigger bodies of water found in the Southern states. Because the turtle can’t regulate it’s own temperature, the further north a person looks, the less turtles they are likely to find.
“There could be one or two that are hanging on to 50 or 75 years of age that we are never going to find, so we never say never, but that’s why it’s considered endangered here in Illinois,” he said. “Most turtles can breed within their first or second year of being born, but this species reaches sexual maturity somewhere between 11 to14 years of age. It can’t breed and lay eggs until it’s 11 to 12 years old, so it’s at a major disadvantage and by removing just a few adults from a population, you really cause that population to go through a massive decline very quickly. That’s more than likely what happened here in Illinois.”
Because there were never any harvest regulations on these turtles, Kath said he estimates that the few snapping turtles that could be found in Illinois were either killed for their meat or captured as pets in the 60s and 70s. The goal of this project is to bring their numbers back to an elevated status called “threatened” and possibly even removed from the list of endangered species.
“I have been with the department now for 17 years and I knew very early on in my career that the habitat conditions were improving in terms of water quality and wetland habitat,” said Kath. “They are improving to the point where animals that used to inhabit those wetlands that are no longer here that could seriously be brought back and this is one of the key-stones. There is a habitat for them here and we should think about bringing this animal back and making it part again of the natural fauna of Illinois once more.”
High School senior Amanda Muir said for herself and other students at the high school, bringing interest to this project is just as important as the interest in any sport. Muir and a few other key members of the project donned gray T-shirts for the event with the phrase, “Bring the snap back on the map.” Muir said the quote came from a slogan student Caite Risen said to Ritter one day. Ritter was so tickled by the phrase, he had it put on a special T-shirt to commemorate the event.
The T-shirts were just the start of the campaign to get students, faculty and even the community onboard with this project. To date, there are websites, a Facebook page, a live webstream — which can be viewed live online at, announcements at the school in the morning and more. Muir said the students hope that all of these outlets will show others just what they are capable of, what they are doing right now, and how this is going to shape the future of this species.
“Getting this all started was hard, but coming into it and getting everything done, you look back at it and think that this was such as successful idea, you can’t help but be proud of it,” said Muir. “I am flooded with excitement. Other students will come in and be part of it, but they won’t have that same experience of being part of it from the beginning. To be able to be the first one to put a turtle into the tank, I couldn’t help but smile.”
Though it will take many years for the turtles to reach the maturity of being able to reproduce, Muir said she plans on keeping up with the project and seeing it through even past high school, an idea that Ritter said he proudly supports.
“The greatest excitement in the world, is knowing that our seniors want to be a part of this so bad that they want to come back,” said Ritter. “Right now, there is an electricity in the air surrounding this project. Mrs. McCoy’s kids, my kids and kids across the high school want to be a part of this project because they know they are changing lives and that is the beauty of the whole thing.”
The turtles will be kept at the high school for two years before being released into the wild. In the future, Ritter said he and his students plan to bring this program to other schools, not just within the state, but also across the country. Their goal is to be a model for what can be accomplished when kids get actively involved in their world. Ritter said this is one of those projects where he knows that one day he will be able to look back and know that his students started the campaign to save the life of a species.
“It’s a great feeling to know that kids we’re leading that charge and working together in other classes to make it happen,” said Ritter. “It’s been an unbelievable endeavor, but everybody will have to stay tuned and watch along the way because the reality is, we are just getting started. These kids are realizing there isn’t anything they can’t do.”
By Luke Smucker
Pontiac Daily Leader