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From rusty chains to internet fame, meet Chicago's giant river turtle

A kayaker on the Chicago River found a giant snapping turtle, and now she's the city's newest celebrity.
Posted at 7:17 PM, May 16, 2023

Chicago has a new celebrity named Chonkosaurus.

The snapping turtle, which was spotted on the Chicago River earlier this month, has won over the internet with its impressive size.

Joey Santore, a 40-year-old botanist, spotted the enormous reptile while kayaking with a friend, who gave the turtle its nickname.

"We were just laughing because it was so gargantuan and the scene it created perched on the edge of these giant, rusty chains — signs of the former industry that used to be on the river," Santore said.

In a video of the encounter —  Santore was filming an episode of his YouTube show "Crime Pays But Botany Doesn't" at the time — an astonished Santore is heard saying with a thick Chicago accent, "Look at the size of that f***ing thing," later telling the turtle, "You look good. I'm real proud of ya. You been eating healthy?" 

Posting the video on Twitter, Santore wrote, "I can only wonder what this thing's been eating." Over 800,000 views later, the people of the internet have come up with such theories as "deep dish" pizza and "what every Chicago chonk eats."

A logger head turtle is seen swimming under water.

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All jokes aside, experts say large snapping turtles are opportunistic eaters.

"We've seen snapping turtles this size rip apart deer carcasses or raccoon carcasses, things of that sort," said Chris Anchor, a wildlife biologist.

Besides eating fish all day, the turtles can also take down a goose or a duck, Anchor said. 

According to Anchor, Chonkosaurus appears to be a 40-pound female between 40 and 50 years old that just emerged from hibernation and "is trying to expose as much of her body so that she can absorb as much heat as quickly as possible." That explains why she has been seen stretching out and basking in the sun, because she wants to warm up her eggs, he said.

"The warmer it gets, the quicker the eggs are going to mature and the better chance she has of emerging in about a month again out of the water onto land so that she can lay eggs," Anchor said.

The online passion for Chonkosaurus reflects a real-life success story with the restoration of the Chicago River.

"It's in a place that's historically been very polluted and somewhat toxic, so that's why it was cool to see it," Santore said. "If you want to see stuff like Chonkosorus where you live, just start planting native plants and get rid of invasive plants."

For Anchor, it's "wonderful" how the river "has cleaned up so immeasurably over the last 50 odd years," allowing residents to start noticing the wildlife that is living among us.