Texas Parks & Wildlife Magazine   


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Prehistoric Ridgebacks

Giant SNAPPING TURTLES look fierce with dino-style spikes. 

Alligator snapping turtles are the largest freshwater turtle in North America — able to grow to more than 200 pounds and live 100 years.  

Texas is home to two species of snapping turtles: alligator snapping turtles (Macroclemys temminckii) and common snapping turtles (Chelydra serpentina). When it comes to size, the common snapper is no slouch, either: It’s the second-largest freshwater turtle in Texas.

Snapping turtles have large heads and powerful jaws, used to defend themselves and secure prey. Their shells offer limited protection to their heads and limbs; they are known to snap and bite when handled, leading to their “snapper” moniker.

Sporting a hooked beak and a spiked shell with serrations — similar to the rough, ridged skin of an alligator — alligator snapping turtles are found in the eastern part of Texas in rivers, reservoirs, sloughs and swampy lakes. Adults range from 14 to 32 inches in length (average 26 inches). They typically live to be more than 50 years old.

“In older individuals, those ridges can be worn down through 50 or 100 years of going in and under logs and undercut banks, but in younger individuals you can see those ridges,” says Paul Crump, Texas Parks and Wildlife Department herpetologist.

A threatened species, they are vulnerable to illegal wildlife trade for their meat and shells. In August, TPWD and other agencies released 21 adult alligator snapping turtles and six juveniles into East Texas after they had been seized in a wildlife trafficking case.

Alligator snapping turtles stay submerged for long periods of time and feed on a diet of fish, crayfish, mussels and snakes. They have a unique way of capturing prey. While submerged, they’ll open their jaw to reveal a tongue appendage that resembles a red, wriggling worm. When potential prey enters the mouth to investigate — snap! — dinner is served.

“Alligator snapping turtles eat whatever they can find — they have a reputation for being the garbage disposal system of wetlands and streams,” Crump says. They will eat other turtles, dead raccoons and vegetation.

Common snapping turtles have a wider range in Texas, extending to the Panhandle and Hill Country. Their shells have raised ridges, though less prominent than those in alligator snapping turtles, and they have a blunt snout, long tail and webbed feet with claws. Common snapping turtles live most of their lives in the water, leaving mainly to find mates, lay eggs or move to a new home. They are voracious predators, eating anything they can subdue. Foraging occurs during the day and night on fish, insects, flies, toads, frogs and aquatic vegetation.

Both common and alligator snapping turtles are long-lived and late-maturing animals; removing or disturbing them can have long-term consequences for the species and the habitat. As a threatened species, alligator snapping turtles cannot be legally killed or collected. In 2018, the Texas Parks and Wildlife Commission voted to prohibit the commercial collection of common snapping turtles.

 Jana Telenská | Dreamstime.com

Common name:

Alligator snapping turtle

scientific name:

Macroclemys temminckii


Rivers, lakes and swamps in East Texas and the Southeast U.S.


Primarily fish, smaller turtles, crayfish and mollusks

Did you know?

The jaws of the alligator snapping turtle are strong enough to break through a broom handle.

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