Giant snapping turtle dubbed ‘Chonkosaurus’ spotted in Chicago River

Joey Santore was kayaking down the Chicago River last Friday near Goose Island. What he once thought was a sandbag that somebody had thrown off the bridge onto a rotting pylon turned out to be something downright monstrous.

CHICAGO – If a massive snapping turtle ever had a name, Chonkosaurus would be a perfect epithet.

Joey Santore was kayaking down the Chicago River last Friday, performing a plant survey near Goose Island. What he once thought was a sandbag that somebody had thrown off the bridge onto a rotting pylon turned out to be something downright monstrous.

When he got about 80 feet away from it, he could tell it was a turtle.

"That's a Chicago River snapper. Are you kidding me?" said Santore in the video showing the reptile basking in the sun on a pile of rusty chains. "Look at that beast."

If you are wondering what things the turtle has been eating, you are not alone. Santore joked at the same thing.

"I'm real proud of you," he said. "You been eating healthy? You ever heard of liquid salad?"

Santore, who lives in Texas, was visiting some family and friends in Chicago at the time of the huge encounter. Santore told FOX Weather that he travels around the world filming plants and making educational videos about their ecology and evolution. 


Santore said he has never seen a snapping turtle that large and believes it was probably a pregnant female weighing 60 pounds, if not a little bit more. 

During a normal year, the Chicagoland region will handle anywhere from 100 to 500 turtles of many species, according to Chris Anchor, a wildlife biologist with the Forest Preserve District of Cook County.

"We'll typically handle a dozen to 15 turtles of that size class or bigger," Anchor said. "So that represents a rather unusual turtle in that it's probably 40 or 50 years old minimum. And that's truly a rare beast. It's like a 100-year-old human."

Chicago River's water quality improves

Santore grew up in Chicago and said the once-channelized industrial canal has historically been a polluted body of water. He said he was happy to see the snapper thriving on the once-such-a-toxic tributary that is slowly getting cleaned up and restored after native plants were added up the river.

"Growing up there, I mean, you could always smell the river when you got close to it," Santore recalled. "Probably from the excess fertilizer that was dumped in there would cause these algal blooms."

After the years of cleanup, Santore said there are beavers on the river as well as various native fish species, not just the invasive Asian carp.

According to Anchor, prior to the passage of the Clean Water Act in 1972, the Chicago River was basically an open sewer.

"Literally, it was an open sewer," Anchor said. "And then with the passage of that federal act, all of the point sources of pollution were shut down. And the river has made a dramatic improvement since the 70s."

With the inclusion of Friends of the Chicago River and the Army Corps of Engineers, Anchor adds that the groups addressed many of the very serious problems associated with the river. 

"They've improved the habitat along the river, so you don't get nearly as much runoff or sheet erosion from soil," Anchor said. "And many of the chemical and the sewage issues are no longer present. So the water quality has improved."

Fifty years ago, Anchor said it was very common to only be able to find two or three species of fish wherever you went in the river. Now, you can commonly find 20 to 30 species of fish in the river. 

"We've also seen a dramatic increase in the number of people using the river," Anchor said. "So there are many, many more eyes on the river enjoying the waterway and subsequently seeing the inhabitants of the river."

Illinois' turtle community

According to Friends of the Chicago River, there are two species of snapping turtles in North America. The common snapping turtle can be found throughout Illinois, while the alligator snapping turtle is only located in the southern region of the state.

According to officials, the two look physically different because of the alligator snappers' prehistoric vibe with their large spikes on their shells compared to common snapping turtles' smooth shells.

According to the Illinois Department of Natural Resources, 260 species of turtles have been found worldwide.