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Prairie Central Junior High School teacher Scott Saffer and seventh-grade students Zach Huff, Dolan Barnes, Emily Champlain, Kira Grant and Liam Barnes collect specimens in April in Indian Creek in Livingston County. (For The Pantagraph/APRIL BARNES)

FAIRBURY — Other kids were splashing up the creek catching tadpoles in Forrest Park when Nathan Dotterer noticed a small creature moving at his feet in the mud. He picked it up and yelled out, “It’s a little snapping turtle!”

“Is it a county record?” asked Summer Huber, and everyone present crowded around and took pictures, gingerly handling the little snapper. Herpetology was the topic in seventh-grade science at Prairie Central Junior High and these students were not just “herping” — looking for reptiles and amphibians — for the fun of it. Their field research was focused on trying to establish county records, recording species which had not yet been reported in Livingston County.

That little snapping turtle (Chelydra serpentina) did turn out to be a county record, and was the first of three species previously unrecorded in Livingston County that students discovered in October. A spiny softshell turtle (Apalone spinifera) was identified from a skeleton collected on a creek bank in Fairbury.

“We’re cleaning up the skeleton we found of the softshell turtle, and trying to re-assemble it,” said William Burkett, one of the students who found the specimen. “I want to be a herpetologist. I really enjoy catching turtles and snakes, and want to learn more about them.”

These two turtles were found during after-school herping events organized by Scott Saffer, the school’s seventh-grade science teacher.

The third new species to be identified in the county was a tiger salamander (Ambystoma tigrinum) found by Chase Leman and Allie Zimmerman at a friend’s farm.

Though these three species have been here for a long time, they had never been officially recorded in state surveys.

“It’s great to get the kids outside making discoveries and exploring the natural world around them,” said Saffer, who works during the summer with the Illinois Natural History Survey, which keeps track of the distribution of reptiles and amphibians in the state.

Herpetologists Andrew Kuhns and Chris Phillips were able to confirm the students’ finds. “It’s great that these kids are out making real contributions to science. Their finds help us update the known ranges for these species,” said Kuhns.

The students were able to catch, identify, and release many animals during their field research, including several species of snakes, toads, frogs, and turtles. This is the second year of field herpetology research for students at Prairie Central Junior High, which included finding breeding smallmouth salamanders on an icy March day at Fugate Woods near Fairbury.

Saffer hopes to compile student observations over many years to record distribution and possible changes in the habitat over time. The students also plan to submit their findings for publication in Herpetological Review – a professional research journal, where they will share credit as co-authors.

“It’s exciting that students could have published research before they’re out of junior high. What a fabulous opportunity for kids! We truly appreciate the additional learning time and experience Mr. Saffer provides for our students through these community-based activities,” said Principal Tonya Dieken.


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