An endangered tortoise with an eternal smile in Cook County

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

But it may take up to 15 years before they know if they are successful.

At the center of the effort was a group of baby turtles, the offspring of the Blandings tortoise that surprised naturalists when it was found last summer near Park Ridge, an area where its species had not been spotted for decades.

Blanding’s turtles are among the most beloved amphibians in the area, and rare enough to land on Illinois’ endangered list in 2009.

“It’s pretty cool,” said Matt O’Connor, chief veterinarian at the Shedd Aquarium in Chicago. “Blandings are beautiful turtles. They have this eternal smile, as does the yellow pattern on their skin.”

Its charisma adds yet another pressure to its population, to go along with the loss of habitat and the unusually large population of animals that love to eat their eggs and young, such as raccoons, opossums and skunks.

“They are in great demand in the pet trade and are collected illegally,” O’Connor said. “Because of their personality and the beauty of their shells, Hunters go after them.”

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

“Most of them are very old – 40 to 60 years old, and they’ve reached the end of their reproductive life,” he said. “They’re just waiting to die. It’s really sad. That’s how the residents wink.”

“I am entering my 41st year with the area. At that time, I saw four groups disappear.”

This includes several northern districts 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 O’Connor said her eggs have a 90% mortality rate. Besides unethical collectors, invasive shrubs and urban mammals such as opossums, skunks, and raccoons contribute to that hardship.

“Turtles should leave the water to dig a hole and lay their eggs, then cover them so they are not exposed, and they should be in full sun,” Angkor said. “Many of our areas look like a forest covered with European buckthorn and European honeysuckle. All turtles are directed to the same areas where there is light.”

Unaware humans also play a role.

“Where do we have light all the time? On the roads. So we see these turtles getting beaten up on the roads all the time,” Angkor said. They are trying to lay eggs in the gravel on the side of the road. They all go to the same place and predators know where to go, so they walk the tracks on the roads, turtles crash into cars. It’s a double whammy.”

This made the discovery of a female Blanding tortoise last year along the Des Plaines River near Park Ridge all the more surprising.

“All the habitat has been destroyed,” Angkor said. “They need certain swamps that are shallow and planted with vegetation to survive, and we have very few of those left in Cook County.”

It turns out that the turtle was laden with fertilized eggs, which does not necessarily mean that the father was nearby. For one thing, male Blanding’s turtles run in a circle of sorts, ranging miles in a regular “milk race” where they are found by female partners, he said. Also, female amphibians have the ability to store “sperm sacs” for a period of time, which is strange.

In any case, the area where it was found “had nowhere to live for the mother or the young children,” Angkor said. So county officials got permission from the state to move them “where other turtles were still hanging, and there was a possibility that they could be added to the population.”

This turned out to be on a reserve in Southland where volunteers were working to clear vegetation from the coast to the swampy area and otherwise improve the area for Blandings.

This fits O’Connor, Shedd’s vet. 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 the work done here in all of 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 pregnant turtle was brought to the DuPage County Forest Conservation Area – which has had a “scoop” program for Blanding’s turtles for years – where the eggs can be safely laid and hatched. The baby turtles were then taken by Shedd last August so that they could “reach a size where skunks or raccoons were less likely to eat them and have a better chance of surviving in the wild,” O’Connor said.

On Wednesday, they got the opportunity, delighting a crowd that had been working for a year to make it happen, including some volunteers who helped remove invasive plants at the launch site.

“One of the advantages of participating in the project is seeing them grow from a tiny one-quarter size to being able to set themselves free,” O’Connor said.

Shedd has been in DuPage County’s Initial Start Program for five years, but O’Connor said this first effort in Cook County was very special.

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

However, he knows the results of Wednesday’s release won’t be known for years, because Blanding’s tortoises are a special, long-lived species, many of which take up to 15 years to reach reproductive age.

“We are literally in the first year,” he said. “Speak to us after 14 years and ask us how it goes. You really should have an organization like Shedd or Cook County investing in the long-term, because it’s never a quick fix.”

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For Anchor, it’s another step toward preserving species diversity in the state’s most populous county.

“Cook County is unique in that it is not only the most populous county, but is generally No. 1 or No. 2 in biodiversity,” he said. “You’d think it was somewhere below Shawnee[in southern Illinois]but it’s not. Usually, we are. …we have many types of habitat that congregate around Lake Michigan.”

Anchor monitors transmitters associated with more than 20 species in Cook County, including this new batch of 11 Blanding tortoises, named after William Blanding, a pioneering American naturalist from the 19th century.

But even for a veteran wildlife biologist like Anchor, Wednesday’s release was “a real kind of feeling good about the day.”

“Usually we get involved with projects because we know in the end it’s going to be a good thing, but we really don’t get to see it,” he said.

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

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

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