Alligator Snapping Turtle Facts

Alligator snapping turtle (Macrochelys temminckii)
Alligator snapping turtle (Macrochelys temminckii). Farinosa / Getty Images

The alligator snapping turtle (Macrochelys temminckii) is a large freshwater turtle native to the United States. The species is named in honor of Dutch zoologist Coenraad Jacob Temminck. The turtle gets its common name from the ridges on its shell that resemble the rough skin of an alligator.

Fast Facts: Alligator Snapping Turtle

  • Scientific Name: Macrochelys temminckii
  • Distinguishing Features: Large turtle with strong jaws and a ridged shell resembling alligator skin
  • Average Size: 8.4 to 80 kg (19 to 176 lb); males larger than females
  • Diet: Primarily carnivorous
  • Average Life Span: 20 to 70 years
  • Habitat: Midwest to Southeast United States
  • Conservation Status: Vulnerable
  • Kingdom: Animalia
  • Phylum: Chordata
  • Class: Reptilia
  • Order: Testudines
  • Family: Chelydridae
  • Fun Fact: Although not aggressive, the turtle can deliver a bite powerful enough to amputate fingers.

Description

The alligator snapping turtle has a large head and thick shell with three ridges that feature large, spiked scales. In contrast, the common snapping turtle (Chelydra serpentina) has a smoother shell. Snapping turtle have strong, stout heads, powerful jaws, and sharp claws.

Although alligator snapping turtles may be black, brown, or olive green, most turtles appear greenish from algae growing on the carapace. The turtle has golden eyes with a radiating pattern that aids camouflage.

On average, adult alligator snapping turtles range from 35 to 81 cm (13.8 to 31.8 in) carapace length and weigh between 8.4 to 80 kg (19 to 176 lb). Females tend to be smaller than males. Male alligator snapping turtles can be very large, potentially reaching 183 kg (403 lb). Of the freshwater turtles, only a few Asian softshell species reach a comparable size.

Distribution

The alligator snapping turtles makes its home in the rivers, lakes, and canals of the midwestern to southeastern United States. It lives in watersheds that ultimately drain into the Gulf of Mexico. The turtle is found as far north as South Dakota, as far west as Texas, and east to Florida and Georgia. Alligator snapping turtles live almost exclusively in the water. Females venture onto land to lay eggs.

Diet and Predators

Technically, turtles are omnivorous. But, for the most part, alligator snapping turtles are opportunistic predators. Their usual diet includes fish, carcasses, mollusks, amphibians, worms, snakes, water birds, crayfish, aquatic mammals, and other turtles. They will also eat aquatic plants. Large alligator snapping turtles have been known to kill and eat American alligators. Like other reptiles, they refuse to eat when the temperature is extremely cold or hot because they cannot digest their meal.

The turtle's tongue resembles a worm.
The turtle's tongue resembles a worm. reptiles4all, Getty Images

Although the turtles tend to hunt at night, they can lure small prey during the daytime using their unusual tongues. The tongue of the turtle resembles a pink wriggling worm.

A variety of predators may eat turtle eggs and hatchlings, including snakes, raccoons, skunks, herons, and crows. Humans are the only significant predator of the adults.

Reproduction and Life Cycle

Alligator snapping turtles become sexually mature around 12 years of age. They mate in the spring. About two months later, the female leaves the water to build a nest and deposit between 10 and 50 eggs. She selects a nest site near the water, but high enough or far enough to protect the eggs from flooding. Hatchlings emerge after 100 to 140 days, in early autumn. Their sex is determined by incubation temperature.

In captivity, most turtles live between 20 and 70 years. However, they can potentially live as long as 200 years.

Conservation Status

The IUCN Red List classifies the alligator snapping turtle as a "vulnerable" species. The turtle is listed on CITES Appendix III (United States), with restrictions on its capture in several states within its range and on exportation. Kentucky, Illinois, Indiana, and Missouri are among states in which the turtle is considered endangered.

Threats include collection for the pet trade, habitat destruction, pollution, pesticide accumulation, and trapping for its meat. Although threatened in the wild, the turtle is also kept in captivity. Conservationists are concerned release of captive turtles outside the species' natural range may cause it to become invasive. In 2013, an alligator snapping turtle was captured and euthanized in Oregon. Some states prohibit keeping alligator snapping turtles as pets.

Sources

  • Elsey, R. M. (2006). "Food Habits of Macrochelys temminckii (Alligator Snapping Turtle) from Arkansas and Louisiana". Southeastern Naturalist. 5 (3): 443–452. doi:10.1656/1528-7092(2006)5[443:FHOMTA]2.0.CO;2
  • Ernst, C., R. Barbour, J. Lovich. (1994). Turtles of the United States and Canada. Washington, D.C.: Smithsonian Institution Press. ISBN 1560988231.
  • Gibbons, J. Whitfield (1987). "Why Do Turtles Live So Long?". BioScience. 37 (4): 262–269. doi:10.2307/1310589
  • Thomas, Travis M.; Granatosky, Michael C.; Bourque, Jason R.; Krysko, Kenneth L.; Moler, Paul E.; Gamble, Tony; Suarez, Eric; Leone, Erin; Roman, Joe (2014). "Taxonomic assessment of Alligator Snapping Turtles (Chelydridae: Macrochelys), with the description of two new species from the southeastern United States". Zootaxa. 3786 (2): 141–165. doi:10.11646/zootaxa.3786.2.4
  • Tortoise & Freshwater Turtle Specialist Group 1996. Macrochelys temminckii (errata version published in 2016). The IUCN Red List of Threatened Species 1996: e.T12589A97272309. doi:10.2305/IUCN.UK.1996.RLTS.T12589A3362355.en