Alligator Snapping Turtle

Alligator snapping turtle, mouth open. Image taken at the California Academy of Sciences.

Alligator snapping turtles are the largest freshwater turtles in North America. These creatures, which can weigh up to 250 pounds (there are unverified claims of finding some over 400 pounds), were nearly hunted to extinction for their meat, which used to be found in red and white cans on grocery store shelves (Campbell’s even made turtle soup).  This turtle shown above was one of several that was going to be made into turtle soup at a restaurant in the early ’70s until a biologist from the California Academy of Sciences found them and took them for their swamp exhibit instead. And what a wonderful addition they are. These slow moving, ancient-looking creatures are surprisingly graceful as they move about their home and coexist with their tank mate, Claude the albino alligator, quite well. Their other tank mates are not always so lucky because although they are well fed, well, they do sometimes eat the fish in the exhibit. But that is rare. During the early ’70s, over 3 tons of snapping turtle was caught every day, but thankfully now they are protected (by states, not federally). Hopefully they will be able to make a recovery just like the American alligators did.

These turtles are pretty sedentary animals. They only have to come up for breath every 40 minutes or so (again, here we are wasting precious energy and thus oxygen to keep our temperatures up! Oh to be an ectotherm!). At night they will actively hunt, but during the day they are ambush predators, so they will sit really still at the bottom of a river (adults, except for egg-laying females, spend their entire time in the water) waiting for food to come to them and algae will settle on their backs or grow on them, which helps with camouflage. But these sit-and-wait predators have an extra trick up their shell. Inside their mouth, at the end of their tongue they have a little appendage that look exactly like a worm.  And they will wiggle that little tongue around until an unsuspecting fish comes by looking for a snack and instead SNAP! And this SNAP is a very strong SNAP. It has been verified by researchers that this SNAP has cleanly severed fingers off.

So, these turtles are already pretty cool, but is there a way to make them even cuter? Why, yes. The juveniles have prehensile tails that may help stop them from being washed down stream by heavy currents.

For more info, the USGS has a few interesting tidbits and a wonderful list of sources for further research.