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Heartland staff and students helping endangered turtles

July 18, 2019

A project to reintroduce an endangered species is benefiting from the efforts of Heartland Community College faculty and dual credit students from Pontiac Township High School.

Heartland has been in engaged in the Operation Endangered Species, an initiative that aims to save the alligator snapping turtle while engaging students.

Spearheaded by Pontiac Township High School teacher and HCC College NOW instructor Paul Ritter, Operation Endangered Species works with the Illinois Department of Natural Resources to reestablish the alligator snapping turtle to its historic Illinois home. Participating schools raise the turtles until they are mature enough to survive in the wild.

“Operation Endangered Species is a way for students throughout Illinois to work on bringing back a species on the threatened or endangered list,” said Ritter. “It’s exciting to see kids engaged in conservation biology.”  

Heartland received the proper permits in summer 2016 and two arrived that spring after hatching at the St. Louis Zoo. The job of Heartland faculty and biology students: foster the turtles to a healthy size to be introduced into their native home range. 

Ritter noted that in the wild very young Alligator Snapping Turtles have a high mortality rate, so nurturing the turtles until they are larger and can fend off predators. That can take years.

“You start to get them to age three to five and pretty much nothing messes with them anymore,” said Ritter.

HCC’s Associate Director of the Science Lab, Janet Beach-Davis, is thrilled to be part of the initiative. “These animals are predators. Without predators, it’s hard to maintain an ecosystem,” she said. “We’re trying to restore the ecosystem and being part of something like that is fantastic.”

Beach-Davis adds the turtles grow slowly, and not always at the same rate. Once the reptiles are large enough, they are handed off to Ritter to work with the IDNR for release.

The next scheduled release of the program’s Alligator Snapping Turtles is in late July.


Written by: Steve Fast