Alligator Snapping Turtle Facts, Pictures & In-Depth Information. Meet The Largest Freshwater Turtle In America

Alligator snapping turtle facts, pictures and in-depth information. Meet the largest freshwater turtle in America and discover how it catches fish using its tongue as bait…


Alligator Snapping Turtle Facts At A Glance

  • Scientific name: Macrochelys temminckii
  • Type of Animal: Reptile
  • Animal Family: Chelydridae
  • Where Found: Southeastern United States
  • Carapace Length: 35 to 81 cm (13.8 to 31.8 in)
  • Weight:4 to 80 kg (19 to 176 lb.)
  • Conservation Status: Vulnerable

Meet The Alligator Snapping Turtle: Introduction

Alligator Snapping Turtle Out Of Water

The alligator snapping turtle is one of the largest freshwater turtles in the world and the largest found in North America. The species is native to the southeastern United States.

The species gets its name from its strongly ridged shell, which resembles the ridged skin of an alligator. It is famed for its ability to close its jaws with great speed and force. Studies have found that, while impressive, its bite force is not as strong as that of humans.

The closest relative of the alligator snapping turtle is the Suwannee snapping turtle (M. suwanniensis), which inhabits the Suwannee River. The Suwannee snapping turtle was only identified as a species in its own right in 2014; previously it and the alligator snapping turtle were considered to be the same species.

Alligator Snapping Turtle Vs Common Snapping Turtle

Common Snapping Turtle
Common snapping turtle. The common snapping turtle is smaller, and has a smoother shell, than the alligator snapping turtle.

The alligator snapping turtle is in the same family (Chelydridae) as the common snapping turtle (Chelydra serpentine). The two species can be told apart by the common snapping turtle’s smaller size, smoother carapace, and more aggressive disposition.

The common snapping turtle is found across a much wider range than its larger cousin, being present in much of the eastern United States and southeastern Canada.

What Does The Alligator Snapping Turtle Look Like?

Alligator-Snapping-Turtle-Picture
Peter Paplanus from St. Louis, Missouri [CC BY 2.0]
The alligator snapping turtle’s large size, armored shell and tough, leathery skin give it a primitive, dinosaur-like appearance.

The turtle’s carapace (upper shell) is thick, and has three prominent ridges of spiked domes running along its length. Unlike most other turtles, the alligator snapping turtle is unable to withdraw its head and limbs into its shell.

Alligator snapping turtles are often covered in algae, which gives them a greenish appearance. The skin is typically brown, but there may be yellowish coloration on the neck and a radiating yellow pattern around the animal’s golden eyes.

The carapace may be brown, olive green, gray or black in color, while the plastron (the underside of the shell) is often yellowish brown.

The tail of the alligator snapping turtle is thick, long and powerful. The turtle’s short, stout legs are equipped with long, sharp claws.

Alligator Snapping Turtle

The alligator snapping turtle has a thick neck and large head. Its beak is strongly hooked and has sharp edges. The species is quite capable of biting inquisitive fingers clean off!

At the tip of the turtle’s tongue is a pink, worm-like protrusion. This is used to attract fish and other prey within range of the turtle’s powerful jaws.

The skin of the turtle’s head, neck and the forelimbs is deeply wrinkled and partially covered in warty growths.

The hatchlings are similar in appearance to the adults. Male turtles grow to a larger size than the females, and the base of their tails is thicker.

Where Is The Alligator Snapping Turtle Found?

The alligator snapping turtle is found in the southeastern United States.

The species’ distribution range extends to Kansas, Oklahoma and Texas in the west; Illinois, Missouri and Iowa in the north; and Georgia and Florida in the east.

Most of the stable alligator snapping turtle populations occur near large bodies of water, in particular those that drain into the Gulf of Mexico, such as the Mississippi River.

Captive Alligator Snapping Turtle
Captive Alligator Snapping Turtle. Photo: Norbert Nagel, Mörfelden-Walldorf, Germany [CC BY-SA 3.0]

Habitat

The alligator snapping turtle lives in a range of freshwater habitats, including rivers, lakes, canals, wetlands, reservoirs and swamps.

The species is more likely to be found in moving water than the common snapping turtle, which is more commonly found in ponds and lakes.

Behavior

A solitary species, the turtle spends most of its life in the deepest parts of its environment, where it conceals itself among objects such submerged logs and roots. It is most active at night, but will also hunt during the day.

The alligator snapping turtle is able to stay submerged for up to 40 to 50 minutes before coming to breathe. The species spends most of its life in the water, with females only venturing onto land in order to lay their eggs.

Breeding

Alligator snapping turtles become sexually mature between the ages of 11 and 13. Their lifespan in the wild is estimated to be between 80 and 120 years.

Mating takes place in spring (early spring in the southern parts of the range, and later in the spring in the northern parts of the range).

Around two months after mating, the female emerges from the water to lay her eggs. She excavates a hole in the sand with her hind legs. The nest is usually situated around 50 m (160 ft.) from the water’s edge to protect it from flooding.

The female turtle lays between 8 and 52 eggs into the nest then covers them with sand. She will then return to the water; neither parent will provide any further parental care to their offspring.

Incubation lasts from 100 to 140 days. The hatchlings begin to emerge in the fall.

As is the case with many egg-laying reptiles, the temperature in the nest determines the sex of the hatchlings. Warmer temperatures result in mostly female hatchlings, while cooler temperatures result in mostly male hatchlings.

What Do Alligator Snapping Turtles Eat?

The alligator snapping turtle is mainly carnivorous, obtaining food both by hunting and by scavenging. An opportunistic predator, the turtle will typically target whatever prey is locally abundant and easy to catch.

The main component of the turtle’s diet is fish. It will also eat mollusks, amphibians, crayfish, snakes, worms, other turtle species, insects and aquatic plants.

Less commonly, large individuals may also prey on small American alligators, and mammals such as muskrats, squirrels, raccoons, opossums and armadillos that venture too close to the turtle’s aquatic habitat.

Alligator Snapping Turtle Hunting Methods

Alligator snapping turtle tongue close up
The worm-like projection on the turtle’s tongue is used to lure fish and other prey towards the turtle’s powerful jaws. Photo: LA Dawson [CC BY-SA 2.5]
The alligator snapping turtle is predominantly an ambush predator. It lies on the river bed with its mouth open, twitching the worm-like projection on its tongue to lure fish and amphibians straight into its gaping jaws.

The turtle hunts more actively at night. The species is able to locate prey hiding in mud by detecting chemical cues released by the prey animals. The turtle uses its throat to pump water in and out to sample the chemicals that are present in the water.

Alligator Snapping Turtle Predators

Mature alligator snapping turtles have no known predators. As eggs and hatchlings they are vulnerable to predation by large fish, herons, crows, raccoons, skunks and snakes.

Are Alligator Snapping Turtles Dangerous To Humans?

The alligator snapping turtle is generally docile and will generally attempt to swim away from humans rather than attacking. If roughly handled or otherwise provoked, the turtle can deliver a powerful bite capable of causing significant injuries.

Is The Alligator Snapping Turtle Endangered?

The alligator snapping turtle is rated ‘Vulnerable’ by the IUCN.

In several states, including Illinois, Indiana, Kentucky and Missouri, the species is considered endangered and is protected by law.

Although the alligator snapping turtle has a large distribution range covering over 10,000 m2 (3,860 sq. mi), it has a low population density and appears to be in decline in many states.

The main threats to the species include habitat destruction and degradation, overharvesting for meat, pollution and pesticide accumulation, and capture for the exotic pet trade.


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