Alligator Snapping Turtle
The Alligator Snapping Turtle (M. temminckii) is one of the largest freshwater turtle species in the world. The species is well-known for being a powerhouse of a reptile. The turtle has a bite force that is almost 400 pounds of pressure, and although that isn’t as strong as some other turtles, it is still a serious bite! These turtles are traditionally found in freshwater within the southeastern United States. Unlike their counterpart, the common snapping turtle can be found in the northwest and the eastern United States.
Unique physical characteristics
The Alligator Snapping Turtle is easily identifiable by its unique defining characteristics. They are typically olive-green, black, or brown in color and covered in algae. Their appearance is commonly described as “dinosaur-like” or “prehistoric” due to their oversized claws and rugged shell. Their hard upper shell, also known as the carapace, is scaly and spiked. Their shell features three pointed dorsal ridges that run vertically down their back. Their eyes are striped black and yellow, serving as camouflage in the murky waters they inhabit. These powerhouse turtles feature a large head and strong jaws with a hooked beak. Their jaws have an incredible bite force of around 1,200 pounds per square inch. The average male snapping turtle will reach 29 inches in length and can weigh upwards of 250 pounds. A female snapping turtle can reach 22 inches and weighs 62 pounds on average. The species was recorded as the largest freshwater turtle in the United States, reaching a record length of 31 inches and 251 lbs. Due to their massive size and jaw strength, these turtles can easily crush through bone and shell. One of the most unique features of the snapping turtle is their long, narrow tongues that appear similar to worms. Their tongues function as a “lure” to attract and ambush fish, as well as other small prey.
Habitat and Location
Alligator Snapping Turtles are typically found in freshwater and live in the deep waters of swamps, lakes, rivers, and canals. They are native to Native America and are primarily found in southeastern United States regions such as Florida, Texas, Iowa, and Georgia. There have been three subpopulations of alligator snapping turtles located in the Suwanna river drainage system in Florida, the greater Mississippi River watershed, and the gulf coastal rivers to the east of the Mississippi. Hatchlings are typically bred near smaller streams while adult turtles are generally found in larger rivers and streams that lead into the Gulf Of Mexico. These turtles thrive in biomes that consist of freshwater river beds, marshlands, swamps, and wetlands.
The Alligator Snapping Turtle will spend most of their life in water and typically only come out to bask. Female snapping turtles venture onto land to dig their nests and lay their clutch near small streams. This species can stay underwater for approximately an hour before they need to resurface for air. One of the unique features of the alligator snapping turtle is the way they hunt. During the day, the turtle will hunt by lying motionlessly on the floor of a swamp or other murky body of water. The turtle keeps its mouth open and uses the pink worm-like tongue in its mouth to lure in fish, frogs, or minnows and ambush them. At night, the alligator snapping is much more active and will start to forage for other animals, carcasses, or really anything it can get into its mouth.
This turtle has an incredibly powerful jaw as well! With a bite-force ranging anywhere from 400 pounds to some having a bite force of over 600 pounds! This is an animal with very few predators. With their hardshell and a serious bite-force, the only predator truly to the alligator snapping turtle is humans.
The alligator snapping turtle is what is referred to as an opportunistic feeder, although technically, they are considered omnivorous. The species is almost entirely carnivorous. The turtle will eat food that it is capable of catching itself as well as scavenging for dead organisms. In short, alligator snapping turtles will eat basically anything it can get. The typical diet of a wild alligator snapping turtle consists of fish, fish carcasses, carrion, mollusks, and other amphibians. However, being the opportunistic feeder this turtle is, it will also eat crawfish, worms, clams, birds, aquatic plants, other turtles, smaller turtles, and even snakes. Some snapping turtles have even been found to eat mammals such as mice, squirrels, opossums, raccoons, or other small mammals that try to swim or come near the edge of the water.
This creature commonly hunts at night but has been seen hunting in the daytime as well. These turtles draw prey in by sitting motionless at the bottom of a murky body of water such as a swamp or lake with their mouth open to reveal its tongue. The tongue of the alligator snapping turtle looks like a pink worm, and it stands out well against the rest of the otherwise greyish-brown head of the snapping turtle. As the tongue moves around, it mimics that of a worm wiggling around. This movement attracts fish, and when given a chance, the alligator snapping turtle closes its mouth and captures the fish. This is typically the main way the turtle catches prey, such as minnows. This diet of only minnows though, will not sustain an adult turtle and requires them to scavenge more actively for their meals.
Like many other reptiles, these turtles will not attempt to hunt if it is too cold or too hot due to this having an impact on their digestion.
Reproduction and lifespan
The alligator snapping turtle reaches sexual maturity between 11 and 13 years old. Due to their typical solitary nature, the turtle will have to travel to locate a mate. The turtle’s mating season differs based on their location. Turtles located in Florida typically mate in early spring whereas turtles in the Mississippi Valley will mate in late spring. Males mount the female and hold her shell with all four of their feet during insemination. After, a female will travel inland up to 50 miles to dig nests in the sand. This nest site is still near water but is high enough to protect the eggs from any potential flooding.
Females will only way one clutch per year, or sometimes every other year. A clutch of alligator snapping turtle eggs can range anywhere from 10-60 eggs and require 100 to 140 days for incubation and will emerge in early autumn. The success rate of these eggs hatching is entirely dependent on the nest dug.
The male snapping turtle will not stick around once the female has laid her clutch. Once the male inseminates a female, he goes on his way. A female will lay her clutch, but that’s where motherhood ends. Alligator snapping turtles are unfortunately independent from the time they hatch.
The IUCN (International Union For Conservation Of Nature) Red List classifies these turtles as vulnerable. Unfortunately, the alligator snapping turtles population is declining due to habitat loss as well as poachers harvest them for their meat. Although the alligator snapping turtle is not technically on the endangered species list yet, many states have gone ahead and made the collection of these turtles illegal to help boost their population numbers.
There are some states that allow you to keep a snapping turtle as a pet, but those states require you to have a special permit. Many states have the alligator snapping as an endangered species, and others have entirely banned pet ownership of these turtles altogether. For some reason, if you do live in a state that allows these to be pets, I recommend you do not try to own one of these creatures as a pet.
Before we get into it, if you do buy an alligator snapping turtle legally, it’s a good idea to keep all the paperwork. You wouldn’t want any animal control officers assuming you poached this animal from the wild.
So why shouldn’t you own one? Well, the simple answer is these turtles are incredibly aggressive. This is not like one of the many pet turtles you can safely own that are available at your local pet store. An alligator snapping turtle is a huge animal that is incredibly aggressive and requires an expert to take care of. The turtle weighs upwards of 200 pounds and are around 26 inches long.
A turtle this size is going to require a massive enclosure the average pet owner is not going to be able to provide. In comparison, a small mud turtle that is 3-4 inches long requires a 40 gallon tank at a minimum. Now imagine the size of an enclosure you would need for a turtle is 200 pounds and 26 inches long!
Another reason you shouldn’t own one of these turtles as a pet is due to their lifespan. The alligator snapping turtle can live to be 100 years old pretty easily. It’s not fair to you our the turtle, to put yourself into a commitment level like this. It isn’t manageable and will only lead to you either releasing the turtle into the wild, which can impact that ecosystem. Another problem with releasing captive turtles into the wild is they do not have the skillset to survive. Your turtle is used to you feeding it everyday, it does not have any idea how to hunt for its own food out in the wild, and will likely starve to death.
Finally, the diet these turtles require is going to be very expensive. We aren’t talking about giving these turtles pellet food like a traditional turtle, you have to feed them various foods such as chicken, beef, etc. This is a very costly expense that the average reptile owner cannot maintain correctly. Also, feeding a diet that consists of this much meat means the enclosure will often require cleaning. It’s very tricky to clean the enclosure of a 200 pound turtle that can bite your hand off with ease.
Overall, stay away from the idea of owning one of these turtles and leave them in the wild or visit one at your local aquarium or zoo.
Alligator snapping turtles have been used as food in the southern areas of the United States. The peak of alligator snapping turtle harvesting occurred from 1960-1970. This caused a massive population decline. Luckily, the mortality rate slowed in the 70’s thanks to the Florida Game and Fresh Water Fish commission stepping in and enacting a limit on how many alligator snapping turtles can be taken. Currently, under rule 68A-27.005 from the Florida Administrative Code, it is illegal to take, own, or sell alligator snapping turtles due to them being a protected species.
Due to all of these turtles’ over poaching, experts predict it could take decades for the species to regain its numbers. One of the biggest threats facing the alligator snapping turtle currently is being caught on lines set for fish, specifically catfish.
The alligator snapping turtle also faces natural threats as well. These include other animals eating the eggs laid by females, such as raccoons, wild hogs, or even fire ants.
There is a common myth that goes with the alligator snapping turtle, and that is these animals will actively come after humans. This turtle, like many other turtles, will never actively try to attack a human. However, they are an animal and they will defend themselves if they feel threatened. The bite force of an alligator snapping turtle can easily snap a human’s bone or take off a finger. That is why if you come across an alligator snapping turtle or even a common snapping turtle in the wild, you need to appreciate the creature from far away. Never try to pick up one of these animals or walk up to it to snap a close up picture. The last thing you want is for one of these turtles to bite you out of fear or thinking your finger is food!