Patsy McNasty got sick of her roommate. Or maybe she just got hungry.
One morning, staff at Chicago’s Peggy Notebaert Nature Museum discovered that Patsy, a 14-pound alligator snapping turtle, was alone in the 75-gallon tank that she would soon outgrow. Missing was her roommate, a 2-inch bluegill who had moved in nine months earlier.
The bluegill was not a tragic loss for the museum, said Celeste Troon, Patsy's primary handler.
“He was harassing the other fish in another tank,” Troon said, “and we were like, OK, we can either euthanize him or he can go in another tank and see what happens.”
On Thursday, Patsy moved into a new, 300-gallon tank, a mansion compared to her old quarters. Several dozen visitors crowded around the tank to witness Patsy’s big move, part of a “housewarming” event held by the museum.
“And now, without further ado, we are going to invite out the star of the hour, Patsy!” said Laura Saletta, the museum’s engagement lead, turning the heads of the children gathered near the tank. “Here she comes. Let’s all give her a big round of applause!”
Wearing camouflage overalls and gloves, Troon appeared from around the corner, holding Patsy in her outstretched arms. She stopped to allow a close-up shot for several TV cameras, then carried Patsy onto a rolling cart in front of the tank.
“As you can see, she’s grown a little bit,” Troon told the crowd before climbing into the tank and lowering Patsy into her now dwelling.
When Patsy arrived at the museum six years ago, she weighed 1.5 pounds and had a 5-inch long shell, fitting comfortably in a 40-gallon tank. But she’s grown into a 12-inch shell, and recently her 75-gallon home was starting to feel cramped.
Her new tank, which is more than three times as big, should work for a while. Patsy, who is 10, could live up to 100 years and grow to 150 pounds.
“This habitat is probably larger than she needs because they don’t move around a lot,” Saletta said. “However, she will definitely grow into it. She does eat a lot. And she’s still a little kid, so she has a lot of growing to do.”
Patsy came to the museum six years ago as an ambassador for alligator snapping turtles, which are endangered in Illinois and other states. She was originally named Patty but was renamed by Troon, who said “the McNasty kind of rolled off the end.”
Named for the scaly spikes on their shells, alligator snappers are often referred to as the “dinosaur of the turtle world,” according to National Geographic.
The species once thrived throughout the southeastern U.S. As recently as the early 20th century, the turtles were abundant in river systems draining into the Gulf of Mexico from waterways of the upper Midwest to swamps and bayous in Florida, Louisiana and Texas, according to the Center for Biological Diversity.
But despite not having a natural predator, the turtles have become a delicacy for one group: humans.
“The big thing with the alligator snapper is that they taste really good,” Troon said. “So they were hunted to dangerously low levels.”
Because of the species’ engendered status, it’s illegal to hunt alligator snapping turtles in Illinois. But they still face various forms of habitat degradation, including the draining of wetlands, channelization of rivers and levying.
That’s why Patsy is now on display in the middle of the museum’s “Mysteries of the Marsh” exhibit, where her new tank was wrapped in a red-and-gold bow Thursday morning.
“We all love her,” said Troon, the museum’s curator and director of living collections. “We were so thrilled for this event today because everybody loves Patsy.”
As their name suggests, alligator snappers like Patsy snap up food by luring prey into their mouths with an appendage on the tongue that looks like a wiggly worm.
“They’re called ambush predators,” Troon said, “and what they do is they just sit on the bottom of their body of water with their mouth open and this little red appendage on their tongue. And if there are any fish around, they see the ‘worm’ and they’re like, ‘Ooh, look at that!’ They swim up to the mouth, and she just, ‘bang,’ snaps it shut. It’s really cool when you see her do it.”
As for her beverage of choice, Patsy’s tank is infused with a tea made for reptiles, called Reptablend, which releases the same tannins found in the slow-flowing or still waters where alligator snappers live in the wild.
“She lives in tea, basically,” Troon said.
Thanks to her tea diet, Patsy’s shell is covered in algae, like alligator snappers in the wild, an indication that she is healthy.
Every once in a while, Patsy stands on her tiptoes and comes up for air, her nose serving as a snorkel. A quick breath is enough to last 30 to 45 minutes.
But mostly, Patsy rests on the surface.
“They don’t particularly care to swim around,” Troon said. “They just like to dwell on the bottom. A lot of [kids] don’t even realize it’s an animal. Very often the mom will call them back and say, ‘Did you see this?’ And they thought they were looking at a rock, and then she’ll move her head and they’ll be like, ‘Wow.’”
Patsy surprised the museum’s staff Thursday by staying calm, Troon said.
“We were laughing because she was so well-behaved today,” she said. “Two days ago when I took her out to measure her, she was scrabbling and snapping and turning around and everything. So that’s what I thought we were going to get, much more dramatic. But I’m quite happy.”
Follow Alex Ruppenthal on Twitter: @arupp
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April 25: The long voyage of some migratory birds ends in Chicago. How photographer Art Fox is raising awareness of what's called "window kill" at the Peggy Notebaert Nature Museum.