Alligator snapping turtle - the largest freshwater turtle species in the U.S.
ALLIGATOR SNAPPING TURTLE: Magnificent Beast Protected from Feast **
**The following account is a true story. Some names have been changed to protect the not-so-innocent. One turtle was harmed in the making of this story.
Summer mornings often find many herpetologists "in the field" studying their cold-blooded species of interest. Unfortunately, that was not the case for me on July 17, 1997. Faced with what seemed to be an insurmountable stack of deadline-ridden paperwork, I was completely office-bound. As the principal herpetologist for the Georgia Department of Natural Resources’ Nongame-Endangered Wildlife Program, however, I must also be available for other unexpected duties when working at my office in Forsyth. Frequent public assistance phone calls, usually snake "crises", are par for the course, but one particular call that day was quite unexpected.
Mr. "Catfish" Trotline, a fisherman from Southwest Georgia, called to inform me not of the fish, but rather the turtle, he had caught a few days earlier. A 57 pound "loggerhead" (local vernacular for the alligator snapping turtle) fell for his one of his baited hooks set in Kinchafoonee Creek. This particular turtle had a metal tag attached to one of its feet and Mr. Trotline correctly reasoned that someone with the DNR put that tag there and would be interested in knowing about the catch.
The turtle, or Number 119 as he was affectionately known, was a male turtle first caught farther downstream in the Flint River during a 1989 status survey of this threatened species. I was very pleased to get the capture information on No. 119, which would certainly help add to the limited knowledge of alligator snapping turtle movements and growth. Interestingly, over the course of eight years, this turtle gained 32 pounds and moved upstream several kilometers into a tributary of the Flint. I thanked Mr. Trotline for being so kind to inform me of his catch and asked if he had already released it. To say the least, I was quite unprepared for his answer - "No, I ate it."
I thought – "How could he possibly tell me this?" After all, the alligator snapping turtle is a protected species and Mr. Trotline was openly telling a state biologist with the Endangered Wildlife Program of his illegal feast! Clearly, "Catfish" Trotline was not aware of the alligator snapper's status and since he only meant well by calling us, he was pardoned.
Alligator snapping turtles were once highly prized for their meat. Old-timers professed that there are seven different flavors of meat on a single turtle (one of them must be chicken, I assume). Many freshwater turtle species were eaten, but 'gator snappers could provide a much greater quantity of meat than others and thus were especially favored. During the 1960s and 1970s, Campbell’s, and certainly others, even produced a canned turtle soup. It was this fact that eventually led to the decline and threatened status of the alligator snapper.
Commercial turtle trapping operations strongly focused on this species since it was easy to catch and its enormous size ensured good earnings for the trappers that sold meat at per pound rates. The removal of so many large, mature alligator snappers from the rivers and streams of the southeastern Gulf Coastal Plain caused a huge population crash in many areas, requiring state agencies to prohibit commercial harvest.
The largest freshwater turtle in the Western Hemisphere, the alligator snapping turtle can reach 250 pounds or more and have a shell nearly one yard in length. Alligator snappers look quite pre-historic, with three jagged ridges on the carapace, a massive head with powerful hooked jaws, bear-like claws, and a long scaly tail. On the floor of its mouth is a pink, fleshy structure that is unique to this species. The worm-like process is wiggled and twitched while the turtle lies otherwise motionless under the water with its mouth wide-open. This action lures small fish within striking distance of its lightning-quick jaws. Actually, fish are only one component of a highly opportunistic and varied diet that includes smaller turtles, mussels, birds, muscadine grapes, palmetto berries, acorns, and carrion (and fishhooks).
Humans very rarely see alligator snapping turtles, except those people who purposely pursue the turtles, such as biologists and trappers. However, many people misidentify their smaller cousin, the common snapping turtle, as an alligator snapper. Common snapping turtles often travel across land from one aquatic habitat to another, which puts them in view of humans much more frequently. Conversely, alligator snappers never voluntarily leave the water, except nesting females, which rarely stray more than a few yards beyond the high-water line.
Today, even biologists rarely see alligator snappers. In an effort to evaluate current populations of this species in Georgia, I, along with other colleagues and volunteers, conducted status surveys in the major stream systems of Georgia within the species’ range. Using live traps and snorkeling searches, we did in fact find 'gator snappers, but certainly not in the numbers we had hoped. One river, the Suwannee, yielded no captures or sightings of this spectacular creature, despite seemingly ideal habitat. Clearly, commercial trapping in the past left this and many other Georgia streams with very depressed populations.
Hopefully, with protection measures in place preventing commercial harvest of this species in Georgia and elsewhere, this species will make a successful comeback, much the way its namesake, the American Alligator, did following over-hunting and subsequent protection. However, building on the lesson learned from that phone call in July of 1997, we obviously need to make the public more aware of the threatened status of the magnificent alligator snapping turtle.
Alligator Snapping Turtle Fact Sheet (by Bob Reed)