Alligator snapping turtles are the largest freshwater turtles native to North America, growing up to 100 cm in length and weighing up to 90kg. With their impressive size and intimidating looks, these primordial creatures are a sight to behold. They have been around for at least 20 million years. These magnificent reptiles usually live underwater in rivers, lakes, canals and swamps, ruling the food chain in any body of water they inhabit.
What are the most interesting facts about these aquatic predators? How do they live and hunt, and more importantly, why are they among the top predators among freshwater creatures?
1. Alligator snapping turtles have extremely powerful jaws
So powerful that they can easily chew through whole watermelons. Alligator snapping turtles have strong jaws and large heads, with a hooked beak for added chomping power. They also have long and powerful tails to help propel them through the water, combined with large claws that help them dig through lake mud.
Alligator snapping turtles can be identified by their three prominent, spiky ridges that run across their shells and their eyes that are located on the side of their heads. Other snapping turtles have eyes located at the front of their heads – having eyes on the side means that alligator snapping turtles have a larger field of vision to look out for threats and prey in their habitat.
2. Alligator snapping turtles are optimized for luring and snapping up prey
Their jaws are capable of crushing and severing fingers. It is recommended that alligator snapping turtles be left alone when encountered in the wild. They are usually slow and placid creatures, but they will bite if handled in a way they dislike. Alligator snapping turtles have an extra bit on their tongues that look like a worm, handy for luring unsuspecting fish into its mouth to be eaten.
3. Alligator snapping turtles live underwater for most of their lives
They do sometimes come up to bask in the sun, but they are predominantly aquatic animals that can stay submerged in water for almost an hour before they have to surface for air. Alligator snapping turtles live in the deepest waters of their preferred watery habitats, although young turtles and hatchlings do live in smaller streams. Usually, only female alligator snapping turtles venture onto dry land to build nests and lay eggs.
Alligator snapping turtles will stay still in water for so long that algae starts to grow on their shells, helping them camouflage themselves as part of the vegetation and mud underwater. They can also hibernate in river and lake beds for the winter.
4. Alligator snapping turtles taste the water to locate their prey
They pump the surrounding water in and out of their throats to check for chemicals that have been left behind by their prey. The action of throat pumping is called gular pumping – some land reptiles like monitor lizards use it to breathe while they run. Adult alligator snapping turtles use the chemosensory system to locate their prey, especially prey that bury themselves into the mud at the bottom of a body of water, or prey that can’t easily be seen in the murky depths of freshwater habitats.
Alligator snapping turtles prefer to spend their time in areas that have cover, even when submerged. They also choose deeper water in winter and shallower water in summer to regulate their body temperature.
5. Alligator snapping turtles mostly eat fish, but they also eat other turtles and medium sized mammals
Alligator snapping turtles are carnivorous creatures that eat aquatic animals, small mammals and vegetation. They are scavengers and active hunters that walk around their habitat at night to hunt for food. In the day, they lie still and leave their mouths open, luring in fish that are attracted to the small pink appendage at the back of their grey-colored mouths. The fish think that the pink appendage resembles a worm, drawing close to then be swallowed whole, sliced in half by the alligator snapping turtle’s jaws, or impaled on the tips of the turtle’s sharp mouth.
Alligator snapping turtles have been known to kill and eat alligators, raccoons, armadillos and opossums – being opportunistic predators, they will eat anything so long as they are large enough in size compared to their prey. Alligator snapping turtles cannot eat when the temperature is too hot or cold because they cannot digest their food, similar to other reptiles.
6. Baby alligator snapping turtles look like mini copies of adult turtles
In the wild, alligator snapping turtles live up to 50 years old. In captivity, they can live for longer – the oldest known individual was 70, but they can potentially live up to 200 years old. Alligator snapping turtles reach sexual maturity at 11 years old. In the late spring, the usually solitary creatures travel to find a mate. As summer rolls around, female alligator snapping turtles that have successfully mated go onto dry land to dig a nest and lay up to 52 eggs.
Similar to most reptiles, the temperature of the nest determines the sex of the turtle hatchlings. Moderate nest temperatures will hatch male alligator snapping turtles, while high or low nest temperatures will hatch female ones. Other temperatures above or below the 25 to 30 degrees Celsius range will create a mix of both male and female. In late summer or early fall, the juvenile turtles will emerge from the eggs and are independent as soon as they hatch.
7. Alligator snapping turtles are hunted for their meat
These majestic turtles have few natural predators, but they face threats to their population due to hunting, water pollution and habitat destruction. Their eggs and hatchlings are often prey to raccoons, birds and large fish. Humans also collect alligator snapping turtles to be kept as pets.
The alligator snapping turtle is classified as a vulnerable species under the IUCN Red List – several states in the US have banned the capture of these turtles. In some states like Kentucky, Illinois, Missouri and Indiana, alligator snapping turtles are listed as an endangered species.