Mary Dixon: It’s been a few weeks since the hefty turtle nicknamed “Chonkosaurus” entered the hearts and minds of millions. The massive snapping turtle was seen basking on a pile of chains in the Chicago River by some local nature enthusiasts. This sighting has sparked excitement about local wildlife. A team of WBEZ and Chicago Sun-Times reporters couldn’t resist the chance to catch their own glimpse of Chonkosaurus. They ventured into the river this week, guided by an expert scientist.But the task proved harder than they thought. WBEZ’s Indi Khera rode along.
Indira Khera: Our adventure starts as we all pile into a little dinghy under the Kinzie Street Bridge.
Sara Ruane: Yeah we fit! We all fit. We could get somebody else in here. We could put the turtle in here with us.
Indira Khera: Sara Ruane is the assistant curator of herpetology at the Field Museum. She's a scientist that specializes in reptiles. And her field work has taken her around the world, studying turtles at a ranch in Nebraska, Research in Guyana and Madagascar. But today's field quest was a little different. We’re searching for Chonkosaurus with, as Ruane points out, the respectful distance you should give all wildlife.
Sara Ruane: Turtles in general don’t ever bite unprovoked. They would never swim up to you to bite you. That being said, if you were to step on a snapping turtle in the water, it might bite you.
Indira Khera: As we meander up the river, Ruane talks turtles. We learn that Chonkosaurus is a common snapping turtle, one of two native snapping turtle species in Illinois. The turtles are, well, common in rivers like this one.
Sara Ruane: One of the reasons they’re common is because they’re sort of generalists. They can live in all sorts of different kinds of aquatic environments.
Indira Khera: But Ruane only gives us about a 20 percent chance of actually seeing Chonkosaurus.
Sara Ruane: Snapping turtles really just don’t bask that much to start with. So seeing a snapping turtle basking is unusual in general. They spend most of their time underwater, they don’t come out onto land unless they absolutely have to.
Indira Khera: She says when snapping turtles are basking, they’re often females who are warming up to lay eggs, getting what Ruane calls “egg power.” So as for Chonkosaurus…
Sara Ruane: She might have nested yesterday and she’s never going to come out of the water again until next year.
Indira Khera: Ruane also breaks the news that Chonkosaurus might not be so comparatively chonky after all. She says common snapping turtles can be up to around 75 pounds, but in her estimation, Chonkosaurus is probably 30 to 40 pounds. After about 30 minutes, we near the bridge where the video of the turtle was taken. Cement pilings poke up from the murky water. Ruane slows our motor.
Sara Ruane: I’m looking intently. So we’re looking for a big, clunky looking turtle sitting on potentially a pile of chains.
Indira Khera: We soon spot some kind of turtle, with a greyish back and two red blazes on its head, resting on a log under trailing green leaves.
Sara Ruane: Let's motor on over and see what it is. So this looks like a slider to me...
Indira Khera: By slider, Ruane is referring to a red-eared slide. The turtles are native to Illinois, but are invasive just about everywhere else. They’ve spread across the world. We see a little heron, swooping through the branches, and even see a goose egg.
Sara Ruane: There's some ducks right there. That's almost a turtle.
Indira Khera: Yeah. almost. But, in the end, Ruane’s instincts were right, no Chonkosaurus. At least not visibly.
Sara Ruane: Could be sitting just ten feet over there near the shoreline under the water, all this time, and we just don’t know.
Indira Khera: Ruane says even adaptable creatures like common snapping turtles can face challenges in urban environments – like a lack of nesting and basking space, or having their eggs eaten by skunks and raccoons. That’s where restoration projects – like the Wild Mile, which we pass – come in. And even though sliders and common snapping turtles can handle a bit more pollution than the average turtle, Ruane says the sightings are still meaningful for the Chicago River.
Sara Ruane: It definitely is a sign of health vs. not health. Definitely, the more turtles you’re seeing the bigger the improvement in the water.
Indira Khera: After a little more searching, we finally accept our fate and turn the dinghy around.
Sara Ruane: Well, Chonkosaurus you’ve eluded us. But you know what, we could always - if we mark down the date it was seen this year we could come back next year.
Indira Khera: And this reporter, personally, would be thrilled to go on an annual search for Chonkosaurus. Indi Khera, WBEZ News.
Mary Dixon: And you can read more about this adventure, see photos and videos from their journey in a story by Stefano Esposito on the Chicago Sun-Times website. This is WBEZ.
WBEZ transcripts are generated by an automatic speech recognition service. We do our best to edit for misspellings and typos, but mistakes do come through.