The alligator snapping turtle is given its common name because of its immensely powerful jaws and long, spring-like neck, as well as distinct ridges on its shell that are similar in appearance to the rough, ridged skin of an alligator.
The Alligator Snapping Turtle is found primarily in southeastern United States waters.
They are found from the Florida Panhandle west to East Texas, north to southeastern Kansas, Missouri, southeastern Iowa, western Illinois, southern Indiana, western Kentucky, and western Tennessee. They are found on the Missouri River at least as far north as the Gavins Point Dam, the southernmost dam on the Missouri River at Yankton, South Dakota, and are featured in the Gavins Point Dam Aquarium.
Typically, only nesting females venture onto open land.
Information & Facts:
The Alligator Snapping Turtle is characterized by a large, heavy head, and a long, thick shell with three dorsal ridges of large scales (osteoderms). They can be immediately distinguished from the common snapping turtle by the three distinct rows of spikes and raised plates on the carapace, whereas the common snapping turtle has a smoother carapace. They are a solid gray, brown, black, or olive-green in color, and often covered with algae. They have radiating yellow patterns around their eyes, serving to break up the outline of the eyes to keep the turtle camouflaged. Their eyes are also surrounded by a star-shaped arrangement of fleshy, filamentous “eyelashes”.
Adult Alligator Snapping Turtles generally range in carapace length from 35 to 80.8 cm (13.8 to 31.8 in) and weigh from 8.4 to 80 kg (19 to 176 lb). Males are usually larger than females.
The inside of the turtle’s mouth is camouflaged, and it possesses a vermiform (i.e., “worm-shaped”) appendage on the tip of its tongue used to lure fish. The turtle hunts by lying motionless in the water with its mouth wide open. The vermiform tongue imitates the movements of a worm, luring prey to the turtle’s mouth. The mouth is then closed with tremendous speed and force, completing the ambush.
Alligator Snapping Turtles must be handled with extreme care and are considered potentially dangerous. This species can bite through the handle of a broom and rare cases have been reported where human fingers have been cleanly bitten off by the species.
No human deaths have been reported to have been caused by alligator snapping turtles.
Alligator Snappers are almost entirely carnivorous. They rely on both live food caught by themselves and dead organisms which they scavenge. In general, they will eat almost anything they can catch. Their natural diets consist primarily of fish and fish carcasses, molluscs, carrion, and amphibians, but they are also known to eat snakes, crayfish, worms, water birds, aquatic plants, and other turtles.
This species may also, on occasion, prey on aquatic rodents, including nutrias and muskrats or even snatch small to mid-sized other mammals, including squirrels, mice, opossums, raccoons, and armadillos when they attempt to swim or come near the water’s edge.
Alligator Snapping Turtles most often hunt at night. They may also hunt diurnally, however. By day, they may try to attract fish and other prey by sitting quietly at the bottom of murky water and let their jaws hang open to reveal their tongues. Small fish, such as minnows, are often caught in this way by younger alligator snapping turtles, whereas adults must eat a greater quantity per day and must forage more actively.
Although not a regular food source for them, adult alligator snappers have even been known to kill and eat small American alligators.
Alligator Snapping Turtles reach maturity at around 12 years of age. Mating takes place yearly, in early spring in the southern part of their total range, and later spring in the north. The female builds a nest and lays a clutch of 10–50 eggs about two months later.
The sex of the young depends on the temperature at which the eggs are incubated. Nests are typically excavated at least 50 yards from the water’s edge to prevent them from being flooded and drowned. Incubation takes from 100 to 140 days, and hatchlings emerge in the early fall.
Though their potential lifespans in the wild are unknown, Alligator Snapping Turtles are believed to be capable of living to 200 years of age, but 80 to 120 is more likely.