Dec 312009
photo provided courtesy of Anubis333 on Flickr Creative CommonsHomeSoutheast United States
HabitatRiver and Lake Bottoms
NicheOpportunistic Ambush Predator
Favorite FoodSmall Fish
Body Length16 to 32 inches
Weight150 to 250 pounds
StatusVulnerable to Extinction
Threats Habitat Loss and Hunting

Alligator snapping turtles are fearsome reptiles, the world’s biggest freshwater turtles. Growing up to 3 feet long and sometimes weighing more than 200 pounds, they are dangerous to human and animal alike.

Like its much smaller relative, the common snapping turtle, the alligator snapper is an ambush predator, concealing itself at the bottom of murky waters in the American South. Its rough body resembles a submerged log or rock, adding camouflage to the element of surprise. The turtle will wait on the muddy bottom with its huge mouth open, flipping the pink tip of its tongue back and forth. To a passing fish in the gloom, the tongue resembles a tasty worm. Once the hapless prey gets close enough, the alligator snapping turtle will snap its vice-like jaws shut in an instant, gobbling up its meal. The jaw muscles are strong enough and the beak blades sharp enough to easily take off the toe or finger of an unscrupulous handler or casual wader in the turtle’s territory. But like most wild animals, the alligator snapping turtle will not attack unless cornered or provoked.

Males only leave the bottom of sluggish rivers and muddy lakes to take a breath every couple hours, but the females will haul themselves onto land in order to lay their eggs after mating. After the young hatch in early fall, they will take to the water, often scavenging on dead creatures in order to build their size, their main defense against predators. If they make it to adulthood, alligator snapping turtles are believed to live over 100 years in the wild.

The alligator snapping turtle is a threatened species vulnerable to extinction. Habitat loss and hunting have thinned their numbers in the wild despite legal protections. The future of this giant river monster is very much up in the air.

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