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Meet ‘Chonkosaurus,’ the viral Chicago River snapping turtle

“I love Chonkosaurus, our new Chicago icon!” one person wrote in response the video, which circulated Twitter.
/ Source: NBC News

A massive snapping turtle lounging on a bed of rusty chains in the Chicago River has won hearts on the internet after a viral video of the spectacle was posted to Twitter on Saturday.

Joey Santore, a self-taught botanist and Chicago native, was kayaking through the Chicago River with his friend when he came across the turtle — which he named Chonkosaurus. 

“We were just going to go out and survey for plant species that were popping up along the river, not anything that was planted, but what just pops up on its own in these highly disturbed and often polluted environments,” he said. “We started seeing a bunch of native species of turtle and were just checking out some of the animal life there.”

While kayaking down the river, Santore and his friend spotted the reptile on a rotting pylon, which was held together with chains and historically used to direct water traffic and prevent damage to other structures in the water. That day, it was a spot for the turtle to relax.

In the video, which had over 350,000 views on Twitter as of Friday afternoon, Santore offers Chonkosaurus words of encouragement.

“You look good. I’m real proud of you. You’ve been eating healthy,” Santore said in the video. “You ever heard of liquid salad? We’ve been doing that.”

Online users were mesmerized by Chonkosaurus’ size.

“I love Chonkosaurus, our new Chicago icon!” one person commented.

“you know, I don’t hear the old Chicago accent too much these days. this guy is a great example,” another user wrote on Twitter. “also love that our river is healthy enough to support this lovely beast!”

“What has that thing been eating??? I’ve never seen tortoise phat before, what a delight. I’ve seen big ones tall as a dog up in the northeast but that’s a real chonker,” another commented.

There are two species of snapping turtles in North America and both of them can be found in Illinois, according to the nonprofit Friends of the Chicago River. Snapping turtles are also “ill-tempered and capable of producing a very serious bite,” the nonprofit said. 

Phil Nicodemus, director of research at Urban Rivers, a nonprofit organization that focuses on transforming urban waterways into wildlife sanctuaries, said he’s seen the large snapping turtles nearby for the last few years. However, he said it was refreshing to see such public enthusiasm around the wildlife.

“For someone to come down our canal, take this video and it goes so viral — that’s something that we see every day,” he said. “The people that live near us don’t even sometimes realize that stuff is right there. So, this is exactly what we wanted to see.”

Nick Wesley, the executive director of Urban Rivers, said the snapping turtles thriving in the area is common as the healthy ecology continues to grow in the area. The growth in the area relied on the work of the nonprofit and others to undue the years of pollution in the river.

“The river was historically terribly polluted. Sewage and shipping were the two main uses, but I think we’ve really turned the page since then,” he said. “Our focus has been on habitat and really increasing wildlife and that’s something that I think has been really lacking in our river system.”

Santore said the size of Chonkosaurus was a shock, but so was the location where he spotted it.

“This thing was obviously very ecologically successful here. It was thriving, and finding plenty to eat. I didn’t expect to see that so close to downtown Chicago. And there was another one there too,” he said.

Santore, who makes educational YouTube videos about plants, said he didn’t expect the video to go viral, since his content is generally focused on plant education, but is grateful so many enjoyed the clip.

“People are used to passing by plants at 70 miles per hour on the freeway. I’m used to people being pretty plant blind,” he said. “When you see a 60-pound snapping turtle that looks like a dinosaur hanging out on … those rusty pylons — I think the whole setting was just so funny.”

This isn’t Santore’s first run in with virality. He went viral in 2019 for rescuing a coyote in the California countryside in a video where viewers were captivated by the coyote’s big eyes and Santore’s bold Chicago twang.

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