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May 23 is World Turtle Day

By Tom Emery
Every terrapin, snapper, and slider can pop his head out of his shell and smile.

Sunday, May 23 is World Turtle Day, and there are plenty of reasons to celebrate in Illinois. The state is home to seventeen turtle species, though seven are either state-threatened or state-endangered. Biologists are working to ensure the long-range future of Illinois turtles, and note that the general public can do much to help.

“Turtles are generally long-lived animals,” said Scott Ballard, the state herpetologist for the Illinois Department of Natural Resources.  “Habitat destruction or alteration is probably the number-one concern for the future of turtles. Once you destroy or encroach upon a good habitat, you’ve reduced the habitat available for turtles to forage and exist in.”

Species of turtles are found statewide, with a slightly higher diversity in the southern half of the state. By far, the most common species of turtle in Illinois is the red-eared slider, known by its bright red patch on the sides of heads of juveniles and females. 

However, the painted turtle, a colorful species described as a “classic pond turtle,” holds the title of official Illinois state reptile, an honor awarded in online voting in July 2005. 

The largest of the state turtles is the alligator snapping turtle, which can reach up to 155 pounds. That species is one of six that are classified as “state-endangered,” joining the river cooter, smooth softshell, Illinois mud turtle, Blanding’s turtle, and spotted turtle. Another, the ornate box turtle, is listed as “state-threatened.”

Turtles play valuable roles in Illinois ecosystems. “Aquatic turtles help maintain the health of lakes and ponds by eating diseased or dying fish,” remarked Ballard. “Box turtles contribute to forests and prairies by assisting in plant reproduction, by eating vegetation and distributing seeds from those native plants. Turtles are good long-term natural stewards of the environment, without question.”

As elsewhere, Illinois turtles face a number of challenges, including the Ranavirus, an illness that can kill turtles in large numbers. “We have literally found dozens of dead turtles in certain areas because of this virus,” said Ballard. “But we’re fortunate to have a good partner in the University of Illinois Veterinary School, who is working on testing and treating specimens with the virus.”

Humans may also help with several other threats to Illinois turtles. “Pollution reduces the quality of aquatic and terrestrial habitat for turtles,” remarked Ballard. “Collecting for the pet trade also leads to declines in turtle populations.”

The turtle pet trade, hunting and trapping, and other threats to turtles have been addressed by the state legislature at various times, particularly in the Illinois Herpetological Code (510 ILCS 68/), or “Herp Code” for short.

Auto traffic also kills a number of turtles, mainly because they are always found on the roads in warmer weather. “Being cold-blooded, turtles’ temperatures take on the temperature of their surroundings,” said Ballard. “Therefore, when they come out of hibernation in the spring, they like to find areas to warm their body temperatures up. Roads and highways hold heat, and they like that.

“Helping to move turtles off roads is one way to protect them,” added Ballard. “But make sure it is done safely, and doesn’t result in accidents.” Simply straddling turtles on highways is another method, again within the limits of safe driving. 

There are many other ways for the average citizen to protect turtles across the state. “Controlling native plant species is also important to maintaining a higher-quality habitat for turtles,” said Ballard. “Also, leaving turtles in the wild assures that adult turtles will be left to reproduce, and not be plucked out as pets.

“If deciding to get a turtle as a pet, obtain one produced in captivity, and make sure that you realize a commitment of 20 years or so,” he continued. “If you can’t make that commitment, then don’t get a baby turtle.” 

Anyone who is aware of illegal collecting or selling of turtles, especially endangered or threatened ones, may report it to the Department of Natural Resources. 

Overall, the outlook for turtles in Illinois is optimistic. “I would say that as long as the concerns for turtle protection stay on people’s radars, and are attended to, turtles will continue to thrive for generations,” concluded Ballard. “Maintaining a healthy environment will allow the turtle diversity of the state to continue to exist.”

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