Photo Credit: U. S. Fish and Wildlife Service
SCIENTIFIC NAME: Macroclemys temminckii
STATUS: Uncommon to rare in streams south of Tennessee River, and very rare in Tennessee River system. Most numerous in Coastal Plain. A very large turtle that is recovering from historic commercial harvest for food. MODERATE CONSERVATION CONCERN.
DESCRIPTION: The largest freshwater turtle in the world, the alligator snapping turtle has many distinguishing characteristics. Average adult size is 15 to 26 inches in carapace length. Weights in adults can reach 150 to 175 pounds. The massive shell is typically black or brown in color and characterized by three prominent ridges which run from front to back. The head of the turtle is very large in relation to the shell. It is characterized by a yellowish-brown color, a very hooked beak with a wide gape, strong jaws, and the inside of the mouth is gray. The feet of the turtle are equipped with large, strong claws and webbed toes.
DISTRIBUTION: Macroclemys temminckii is confined to the Gulf of Mexico drainages of the United States and is widespread in the lower Mississippi Valley. Its range extends from Georgia and northwestern Florida to eastern Texas and can be found as far north as southeast Kansas, southeast Iowa, Illinois and Indiana. Distribution in Alabama is statewide or nearly so. There have been no documented reports of its occurrence in the Tennessee River system in Alabama, but alligator snapping turtles have been collected from Bear Creek in Mississippi, a tributary of the Tennessee River.
HABITAT: The alligator snapper typically inhabits slow moving deep water of rivers and their tributaries. Sloughs, oxbows, canals, swamps, bayous, and ponds near rivers may also be used. They often bury themselves in the mud at the bottom and are most active during the nighttime hours.
FEEDING HABITS: Macroclemys are scavengers and active hunters to some degree. Known food items include fish, frogs, snakes, snails, worms,clams, mussels, crayfish, aquatic plants, and other turtles. A unique characteristic of the alligator snapper is the pink, worm-like lure that is attached to the tongue. While sitting motionless with its mouth open wide, the turtle will wiggle the lure and entice unwary fish to investigate. When the fish is close enough, the turtle will slam its mouth closed with incredible speed and power.
REPRODUCTION: Because alligator snapping turtles do not sexually mature until 11 to 13 years of age and they do not necessarily produce eggs each year, their reproductive rate is rather low. Mating takes place in spring and nesting seems to take place about two months later. Nests are usually positioned 30 to 70 yards off the water’s edge. Females lay between 10 and 50 eggs which are round, white, and hard shelled. Incubation takes 100 to 140 days with hatchlings emerging in the fall. Hatchlings are 35-40 mm long. The sex of these hatchlings is determined by nest temperature.
Mount, R. H., 1975. The Reptiles and Amphibians of Alabama. Ala. Agri. Expt. Sta., Auburn Univ., Auburn, AL. 265-267 pgs.
NatureServe. 2005. NatureServe Explorer: An online encyclopedia of life [web application] Version 4.4. NatureServe, Arlington, Virginia. Available www.natureserve.org/explorer.
Author: Jeremy Lowery, Wildlife Biologist
Outdoor Alabama magazine article