Alligator Adventures

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Published on: Nov. 2, 1995

Last revision: Oct. 20, 2010

Alligator snapping turtles live only in the few natural aquatic habitats remaining in the Bootheel.

The alligator snapping turtle, Macroclemys temminckii, is the largest species of freshwater turtle in the world. It also may be the most shy.

You might think such a large reptile would be easy to catch and study. But few herpetologists (people who study amphibians or reptiles) have tried to study alligator snapping turtles because they are difficult to capture or observe in the wild...they just don't show themselves often.

Of course, this is not the only "snapper" in Missouri. A smaller and more numerous species, the common snapping turtle (chelydra serpentina), is found all over the state and is sometimes confused with its larger cousin. The common snapping turtle rarely gets to be more than 30 pounds. Also, the head of a full-grown common snapping turtle is proportionally much smaller than the head of an alligator snapping turtle with the same shell size.

Alligator snapping turtles live in southeastern and extreme southern Missouri. Most of their time is spent in the water. Females leave the water only to lay their eggs during June or early July every other year. Alligator snappers live in rivers and old river channels (oxbow lakes) where they capture fish to eat. They also eat other kinds of turtles!

The record alligator snapper is a 219-pound male captured in southern Georgia many years ago. Adult males are over twice the weight of females. A few Missouri specimens weighing more than 120 pounds have been captured. A turtle this big can have an upper shell length of nearly 24 inches.

Alligator snapping turtles have the unusual (for a reptile) behavior of luring fish to their mouth with a pink tip on the end of their tongue. With its mouth wide open, an alligator snapping turtle will remain motionless and wiggle its wormlike tongue when a fish swims by. If the fish tries to grab the worm it is, instead, grabbed by the turtle with a powerful lunge.

The alligator snapping turtle is rare in our state due to habitat loss and illegal harvesting. There is no open season for this reptile. I've had some people tell me that alligator snapping turtles, especially big ones, used to be more common in the Bootheel, even up until the 1960s.

One elderly gentleman who I met near Kennett a few years ago told me his Daddy snagged one out of the St. Francis River

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