The Northern Illinois University (NIU) Board of Trustees unanimously voted Dec. 7 to extend the…
DeKalb, Ill. – It’s a creature with a perpetual smile, even in the face of adversity.
Found in northern Illinois and other Great Lakes regions, the Blanding’s turtle can live to be 80 years old but has faced growing challenges of survival. Considered an endangered species in Illinois, the turtle grows to be about the size of a football, with a bright yellow throat, a dome-shaped shell and a beak that is curved upwards at the corners of the mouth.
NIU Biological Sciences Professor Richard King and his Ph.D. student Callie Klatt Golba want to make sure we don’t lose that smile. King has been investigating the reptile’s whereabouts in Lake County for the past decade, and this year the work received a major boost.
The Illinois Department of Natural Resources (IDNR) awarded King with a grant of nearly $260,000 over three years to provide a framework for effective management and recovery of the Blanding’s turtle. The grant allows King and Golba, who’s doing her dissertation on conservation strategies for the turtles, to expand their research to sites in DuPage, Lee and Winnebago counties.
“The Blanding’s turtles are pretty charismatic, with that nice smiling face and bright yellow chin,” says Golba, an Elmhurst native who grew up traipsing through natural areas where the turtles make their nests. Golba came to NIU to pursue her doctorate in part because of the university’s work with local ecosystems and King’s reputation for conservation of reptiles and amphibians.
“Blanding’s turtles are good representatives of Midwestern ecosystems,” Golba says. “They use prairies, wetlands and forest areas native to the region. They’re also what we call an umbrella species—by conserving them, we can preserve a suite of other species.”
While NIU’s work is focused on Illinois, Blanding’s turtles are recognized as being in need of conservation or listed as threatened or endangered in each U.S. state, King says. They are being assessed to determine if federal Endangered Species Act listing might be warranted.
Under the grant work, the scientists will revise proposed criteria for the turtle’s recovery in Illinois; develop tailored management actions; conduct research to evaluate existing management strategies; and assess less well-known populations of the turtle.
King and Golba also recently received a $119,000 “start-from-scratch” grant from the Lake County Forest Preserve District to reintroduce the Blanding turtle to a restored county wetland site.
It’s important work for the turtles—and for people. A loss of a species can disrupt natural ecosystems that keep our air and water clean.
“Once we lose a species, it’s gone. We don’t have a way of bringing it back,” King says. “So finding ways of sustaining these turtle populations becomes especially important.”
The backstory of the Blanding’s turtle is a familiar one, the NIU biology professor says. The reptile lost much of its natural habitat through conversion of land to agriculture or urbanization. Despite their leisurely pace, the turtles can travel a considerable distance from wetlands to surrounding upland habitats, where they nest. Crossing fields and roads puts them at risk of becoming a predator’s dinner, or a vehicle’s bump in the road.
“From a conservation point of view, another challenge is that it takes these turtles 14 to 15 years to reach reproductive maturity,” King says. “So very young turtles have to survive for a long time before they can reproduce.”
Data collected by King and Golba will help the IDNR shape its management strategies, establish goals and measure the success of species’ recovery. “The data will help us predict whether these turtle populations will persist or are at risk of vanishing over the next 50 or 100 years,” King says.
He and Golba also are working to better understand whether management strategies at one site can be adapted to others. Turtle eggs and small hatchlings are especially vulnerable to predators such as raccoons. To counter that, King said, Lake and DuPage counties have established head-start programs, whereby turtle hatchlings are reared in captivity for a year before being released into the wild. Lake County also has had success through removal of raccoons from nesting areas.
King and Golba conducted a pilot study in 2020 using head-start monitoring via radio telemetry at five Illinois sites. Tiny transmitters are placed on the turtles’ shells to help the scientists keep track of them in the wild. The study revealed vastly different survival rates.
“At some sites, survival was nearly 100 percent, while other sites had only three or four survivors out of 20,” King says. “We often found their remains—a chewed up turtle shell and a transmitter with tooth marks—so some kind of predator is eating them. That’s important information. If we just took results from a site where survival rates are the highest, it would be misleading. Effective management strategies will require additional interventions at other sites.”
King and his students are no stranger to rescue work on endangered species.
Before turning to turtles, King was long known as the godfather of the Lake Erie Water Snake, a bad-tempered, foul-smelling serpent. The 31-year veteran biology professor first identified the snake’s population declines in the 1980s, and his work eventually led to the reptile being listed as a “threatened species.”
He and his students then helped develop and implement a recovery plan. The effort was so successful that the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service honored King and his Ph.D. student, Kristin Stanford, with the 2009 Recovery Champion Award. The water snake was removed from of the list of federally endangered and threatened species on Aug. 16, 2011.
Golba hopes to see similar success with the long-lived turtles.
“They come back to the same nesting locations year after year,” she says. “It’s cool to think these turtles will continue their routines even long after I have moved on.”
Media Contact: Tom Parisi
Northern Illinois University is a student-centered, nationally recognized public research university, with expertise that benefits its region and spans the globe in a wide variety of fields, including the sciences, humanities, arts, business, engineering, education, health and law. Through its main campus in DeKalb, Illinois, and education centers for students and working professionals in Chicago, Naperville, Oregon and Rockford, NIU offers more than 100 areas of study while serving a diverse and international student body.