The Alligator Snapping Turtle | Great Days Outdoors

The Alligator Snapping Turtle is not one species, but they are all on the endangered species list.

 

The Alligator Snapping Turtle is the largest freshwater turtle in all of North America and one of Alabama’s most unusual-looking creatures.

It gets its name because of its extremely powerful jaws and long spring-like neck, as well as distinct ridges on its shell that are similar to an alligator’s skin. This unique turtle is often called the “Dinosaur of the Turtle World” because of its prehistoric look.

Its bad disposition, quick reflexes, and sharp, hooked beak have earned the turtle the reputation of the one you want to avoid, but it’s actually not that aggressive.

As long as you are minding your own business, you have no reason to worry. Like most animals, an alligator snapping turtle will flee if it encounters a person. But, if you decide to try to pull one out of the water, it’s a different story.

An alligator snapping turtle will use its powerful jaws to defend itself, and you certainly don’t want to be on the receiving end of its painful bite.

An alligator snapping turtle.

Photo by Stephanie Mallory

According to a recent study published in the journal Zootaxa, the alligator snapping turtle is not one species, but three genetically and morphologically distinct species. By analyzing the fossil record, modern turtle morphology and genetics, the researchers revised the taxonomy of the alligator snapping turtle to identify two new species.

The Center for Biological Diversity states that alligator snapping turtles furthest west in their range — river drainages of the Mississippi and Mobile rivers — will remain as the alligator snapping turtle (Macrochelys temminckii). Turtles from the Suwannee River system in Florida and Georgia are now the Suwannee alligator snapping turtle (Macrochelys suwanniensis). Turtles from the Apalachicola and other panhandle rivers in Florida, Georgia, and Alabama are now the Apalachicola alligator snapping turtle (Macrochelys apalachicolae).




Alligator snapping turtles are rare throughout much of Alabama, but there are a few places in the state where the species is somewhat abundant.

This species once thrived in large numbers throughout the state and even throughout much of the country, but the commercial harvest of alligator snapping turtles by soup companies in the early 1960s and 1970s dramatically depleted the population.

Even though all of Alabama’s turtles are protected from collection, there are those who still hunt them for the purpose of exhibition and consumption. Habitat degradation has also played a role in the turtle’s dropping numbers.

“Alligator Snapping Turtles are known for their massive size with adult males reaching weights of more than 200 pounds.”

Alligator Snapping Turtles are known for their massive size with adult males reaching weights of more than 200 pounds. Females generally do not weigh more than 50 pounds.

Other identifying characteristics include a large, partially retractable, triangular-shaped head that tapers to a prominently hooked beak. Three pronounced ridges extend down the carapace (top shell), while the plastron (bottom shape) displays a cross shape.

They also have a unique set of boney plates on the top shell that are referred to as “supramarginals.” The turtle has a long and muscular tail.

The alligator snapping turtle can be found throughout Alabama from the Tennessee River system south, with higher densities in the Coastal Plain region. It inhabits slow-moving water bodies, such as oxbow lakes, swamps, and backwater sloughs often associated with large floodplain river systems. They can often be found where there are submerged logs, root entanglements, and snags.

Primarily aquatic, the turtle only leaves the water to nest.




These sluggish creatures spend the majority of their time sitting on river bottoms waiting for food. In fact, they’re so sedentary that algae grows thick on their shells. They use a wormlike process on their tongue to lure prey. While sitting motionless with its mouth open wide, the turtle will wiggle the pink, worm-like lure attached to the tongue to entice unwary fish to investigate. When a fish is close enough, the turtle will rapidly slam its powerful mouth together.

The Alligator Snapping Turtle’s reproductive rate is relatively low. They don’t sexually mature until 11 to 13 years of age, and they don’t produce eggs each year.

Mating occurs from February through April and nesting happens shortly afterward. The turtles position their nests 30 to 70 yards off the water’s edge. Females lay between 10 and 50 hard-shelled eggs, which they incubate from 100 to 140 days. Hatchlings emerge in the fall and measure 35-40 mm long. The sex of these hatchlings is determined by nest temperature.

Habitat degradation, pollution, and the species’ life history traits (slow to mature, low reproductive output, and vulnerable to nest predation),  in addition to a poor understanding of the species’ biology, have resulted in its recent designation of high conservation concern in Alabama’s Comprehensive Wildlife Conservation Strategy.

Check your email for your free issue!