Alligator snapping turtle (Macrochelys temminckii): Listed as a Threatened Species.  This species is illegal to capture, possess or own without proper permits issued by the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department..

IDENTIFICATION15-26 inches (38-66 cm).  Not including the leatherback sea turtle, this is the largest species of turtle occuring in North America and some captive specimens have been known to exceed 250 pounds (*** kg).  Unlike its relative the common snapping turtle, Macrochelys  has a short neck bedecked with several fleshy tubercles, an enormous head, highly serrated carapace and marginal scutes and as strongly cusped beak.  The bridge is narrow and the cruciform plastron is small.  The eyes are surrounded by a series of fleshy tubercles often creating the appearance of a star-like pattern.  The interior of the mouth is drab colored often matching the color of the flesh.  The tongue is brightly colored pink, small and bifurcated.  No other living species of turtle posseses such a tongue.  The basal coloration of the carapace is chestnut to drab brown.  The head, neck, limbs and tail are drab olive to dark tan.  In older specimens the head tends to lighten in coloration ranging from beige to ivory.

GEOGRAPHIC DISTRIBUTION :  The alligator snapping turtle occupies a geographic range that includes southwestern Georgia, northern Florida, Alabama, Mississippi, Louisiana, Arkansas, Texas, eastern Oklahoma, extreme southeastern Kansas, southwestern and eastern Illinoisin the Mississippi Valley to Iowa and southwestern Kentucky.  However, specimens may be difficult to locate in portions of their historic range as the construction of dams, commercial collecting, habitat loss and pollution have made a negative impact on alligator snapping turtle populations.

BEHAVIOR AND ECOLOGY:   Alligator snapping turtles are aquatic bottom dwellers.  They have been found in a variety of environs including lakes, oxbows, bayous, deep rivers, canals, creeks, ponds and even brackish estuaries.  This species is an opportunistic feeder known to consume a wide variety of food items such as: acorns, briar roots, various aquatic plants, insects, mollusks, fish, salamanders, frogs, turtles, snakes and mammals.  Despite the varied diet, this turtle isbest known for its ability to lure unsuspecting fish into its mouth.  This is accomplished by holding the mouth agape and wriggling a brightly colored potion of the tongue in a manner similiar to a convulsing and drowning worm.  When the fish moves in for a closer inspection the mouth is slammed shut, water expeled through the nostrils and the fish is swallowed.  Another feature possessed by this turtle is the recurved cusp at the end of the beak.  This characteristics is undoubtedly useful for securing struggling fish.  Adults can stay submerged for intervals of 30 to 50 minutes.  Occasionally, submerged specimens can be seen gulping water and expelling it through their nostrils.  This behavior is suggestive of phayngeal respiration which involves a gaseous exchange across capillary rich surfaces in the throat..

    Females do not reach the behemoth proportions exemplified by old males.  Females are distinguishable from males by having a cloacal opening that does not extend beyond the posterior margins of the carapace.  Females can lay as many as 50 eggs per clutch.  INcubation temperatures ranging from 20-25 degrees Centigrade have resulted in incubation times of 79 to 107 days (Ernst, et al., 1994).  The average incubation period for eggs hatched under captive conditions is roughly 80 days.  Upon hatching, alligator snapping turtles average 38 mm in carapace length.

This  male specimen was hatched in captivity in 1991
The drab interior of the mouth is offset by the bright pink tongue.
Alligator snapping turtles are rather calm when underwater and left alone, but their attitude changes when they are disturbed.  After tiring of a session for the camera, this specimen agressively began to charge the photographer with an open mouth.

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June 2014. Texas: Leon County.  I received an email from a ranch owner who found an adult alligator snapper that was shot in the head.  The photo on the left are the remains after one week of being scavenged by vultures.  A closer examination (right) revealed that the turtle had been previously shot 4 times in the back and survived.  The amount of bone growth on the inside of the carapace indicated that the wounds were several years old.  The shell and bones are now part of the collection at the Amphibian and Reptile Diversity Research Center at the University of Texas Arlington.
In April 2009 I received an email from Jeff Trevino regarding a large dead alligator snapper he found floating in Buffalo Bayou very close to down town Houston.  The likely cause of death involved two large "J" style catfish hooks on weighted lines found in the throat.  No sign of trauma was found on the carcass and it is only assumed that some sort of infection caused by the hooks brought fatal consequences. The body was gathered and taken to the Amphibian and Reptile Diversity Research Center at the University of Texas Arlington where is was skeletonized.  The total length measured a straight carapace length of 27 inches, the head to tail length was 61 inches, the circumference of the head was 29 inches and the old turtle weighed 131 lbs.  The following year another one was found close to this location but it sank into the bayou before the carcass could be salvaged.

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Fortunately there is still good news regarding Texas alligator snappers as sightings still occur.  The two photos above were taken by Mike Howlett of the Harris County Precinct 4 Parks Department.  The upper left phot was taken in 2007 at Cypress Creek while the one on the right was taken in April 2014 at the confluence of Spring Creek and the San Jacinto River
In April 2013 another alligator snapper (this time a female) was found in buffalo bayou with fishhooks in its throat.  Fortunately this specimen was treated and released.  Click Here for more details surrounding this good news.

Should you encounter a deceased alligator snapper please consider donating it to a scientific collection.  For assistance with this contact me directly via email Franklin@uta.edu.  If possible send an image of the turtle in question so that I can confirm its identity before driving to you.

Also should you encounter one alive in the wild I would love to see your photographs of an original Texas river monster.  These turtles need our help.
In April of 2010 I received this image (left) of an adult specimen that had been shot in a neighborhood retention pond that connects to Little Cypress Creek in Cypress, Texas.  Asides from the tragic loss of the turtle the specimen was disposed of before it could be salvaged.