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A rescued young alligator snapping turtle on a grassy field.
Information icon A rescued alligator snapping turtle hatchling is not much bigger than the blades of grass it crawls through. An adult male can grow up to 29 inches and they can weigh up to 249 pounds. Photo by Bradley O’Hanlon, Florida Fish and Wildlife ​Conservation Commission.

Alligator snapping turtle

Macrochelys temminckii

  • Taxon: Reptile
  • Range: AL, AR, FL, GA, IL, IN, KS, KY, LA, MO, MS, OK, TN, and TX
  • Status: Proposed as threatened with a 4(d) rule

The alligator snapping turtle is the hulking, dinosaur-like turtle lurking along the bottom of waterways in the Midwest, Southeast, and some parts of the Southwest. Despite their imposing appearance, they face significant conservation challenges. Years of harvesting the alligator snapping turtle for its meat and other factors have taken a toll on the species. A recent Species Status Assessment showed that its numbers are in decline, and the Service is proposing to list the species as threatened with a 4(d) rule. The alligator snapping turtle needs help from the Service, its partners and the public.

For threatened species, the Service uses the flexibility provided under section 4(d) of the ESA to tailor take prohibitions for the conservation of the species. This targeted approach helps reduce regulatory burdens by exempting certain activities that do not significantly harm the species, or that are beneficial, while focusing conservation efforts on the threats detrimental to recovery. Read more about the proposed 4(d) rule on the Frequently Asked Questions.

Appearance

An alligator snapping turtle with open mouth facing camera as he is being held down from behind by biologist.
A biologist from the Turtle Survival Alliance fits a radio transmitter on an alligator snapping turtle at the Natchitoches National Fish Hatchery, Louisiana, on June 21, 2021, before it is released into its native waterway in East Texas. Photo by USFWS.

Alligator snapping turtles are the largest freshwater turtle species in the United States. The top shells, or carapace, of adult males can reach lengths of up to 29 inches and they can weigh up to 249 pounds. Adult females can have carapace lengths of up to 22 inches and weigh up to 62 pounds. Their shells have three rows of spikes giving them their prehistoric appearance. They have a long tail and muscular legs with webbed toes and long, pointed claws. They are dark brown and often have algae growth which aids in their camouflage. Eyes are on the sides of their huge heads which are surrounded by pointed, fleshy projections.

The Common Snapping Turtle

The alligator snapping turtle and the common snapping turtle are often misidentified. Missing from the common snapping turtle’s carapace are the three rows of large spikes which give the alligator snapping turtle its name. The common snapping turtle is generally much smaller than alligator snapping turtle rarely surpassing 30 pounds. Their heads are also smaller than the alligator snapping turtle in relation to their body size. The common snapping turtle also has a much less prominent beak compared to the alligator snapping turtle.

A common snapping turtle resting in a field of fallen pine needles. The turtle is looking at the camera and has a large tan to dark gray shell.
The common snapping turtle is a large turtle, ranging in size from 8 to 14 inches with a record length of 19.3 inches. Photo by Jesus Moreno, USFWS.

Life span

The oldest alligator snapping turtle documented in captivity was 80 years old, but may live longer in the wild.

Habitat

Alligator snapping turtles generally stay in deeper water of large rivers but also live in other aquatic habitats which include streams, canals, lakes and swamps. They prefer areas of high canopy and structure such as tree root masses, stumps and submerged trees. During winter months, they prefer the shallow areas of their habitat and the deep areas during the summer months. Hatchlings stay in shallower water with plenty of canopy and vegetation.

Diet

Alligator snapping turtles are opportunistic scavengers and consume a variety of foods. They feed on fish crayfish, mollusks, smaller turtles, insects, nutria, snakes, birds and some vegetation.

The alligator snapping turtle is the only turtle species that has a predatory lure. They use this small, wormlike appendage on their tongue to lure prey into striking range. To catch prey, the turtle will lay motionless. Slowly, it will open its jaws in a process that takes one to two minutes. Then, the turtle will wriggle the lure on its tongue to attract the prey into striking distance. When the prey moves into the turtle’s mouth, its jaws will snap shut on the prey holding it there before it begins swallowing.

Historic range

Alligator snapping turtles had a historic range of 14 states: Alabama, Arkansas, Florida, Georgia, Illinois, Indiana, Kansas, Kentucky, Louisiana, Missouri, Mississippi, Oklahoma, Tennessee and Texas.

Current range

Currently, the species occurs in Alabama, Arkansas, Florida, Georgia, Illinois, Kentucky, Louisiana, Missouri, Mississippi, Oklahoma, Tennessee and Texas. They are considered extremely rare in Kansas and Indiana and may no longer occur in those states.

Conservation Challenges

Harvest, Poaching and Bycatch

Commercial harvesting in the late 1960s and 1970s caused a significant decline in alligator snapping turtle populations across its historic range. At one point, three to four tons of alligator snapping turtles were harvested from Flint River, Georgia, alone per day. Commercial harvest of alligator snapping turtles is now prohibited in all states within its range. However, recreational harvest is allowed in Mississippi and Louisiana with some restrictions.

Despite prohibitions and restrictions, illegal harvest poses a threat to the species due to the global demand for pet turtles and turtle meat. In 2017, three men were convicted of illegally collecting 60 large alligator snapping turtles in a single year and transporting them across state lines in violation of the Lacey Act.

Alligator snapping turtles have delayed maturity, long gestation times and a relatively low reproductive output. The species does not reach sexual maturity until 11 to 21 years. Furthermore, a mature female produces only one clutch per year of eight to 52 eggs. Despite their decades-long lifespans, they have a low survivorship before they reach maturity. These factors make the species sensitive to harvest, especially that of adult females. Surveys conducted in Flint River, Georgia, in 2014 and 2015, 22 years after commercial harvest ended, showed no significant change in the species’ abundance.

Alligator snapping turtles also face threats from incidental harm from fishing and recreational activities. Threats include capture as bycatch, ingestion of fish hooks or drowning when captured on trotlines and limb lines. Trot lines are multiple hooks strung across a stream and limb lines are hooks hung from branches. Also, they can drown from entanglement in fishing line and suffer life threatening injuries from boat propeller strikes.

Habitat Alteration

Both natural and human caused changes to freshwater environments in the alligator snapping turtle’s range pose conservation challenges. Dredging, deadhead logging, erosion, changes in the near shore freshwater areas, climate change and channelization all can negatively affect the alligator snapping turtle’s habitat. Run-off from farming and urban areas increases pollution in waterways. An increase in the silt in the water due to erosion and altering waterways also can have a negative effect on alligator snapping turtle habitat. Furthermore, when water is no longer in an area, the turtles have to move across dry land. There, they are less agile and more vulnerable to predators and humans.

Nest Predators and Parasites

Although adult alligator snapping turtles generally do not have predators other than humans, their nests and young are vulnerable to natural predators. Raccoons, opossums, bobcats and river otters prey on their nests. Also, the invasive red imported fire ants pose a threat to alligator snapping turtle nests.

The phorid fly, Megaselia scalaris, can infest alligator snapping turtle nests. The fly lays its eggs on the ground, and its larvae consume nearby organic material. Scientists have observed the evidence of the phorid fly larvae damaging eggs and killing turtle hatchlings. The extent of the threat phorid flies pose on the species level is unknown.

Recovery plan

If the species is listed under the Endangered Species Act (ESA), a recovery plan will be developed.

Partnerships, research and projects:

Partners

  • Arkansas Game and Fish
  • Auburn University
  • Department of Defense
  • Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission
  • Georgia Department of Natural Resources
  • Illinois Department of Natural Resources
  • Iowa Department of Natural Resources
  • Louisiana Department of Wildlife and Fisheries
  • Nashville Zoo
  • Tennessee Wildlife Resource Agency
  • Texas A&M
  • Texas Parks and Wildlife
  • United States Geological Survey
  • University of Florida
  • University of Louisiana at Monroe
  • University of Southern Mississippi

Research and Projects

Tishomingo National Fish Hatchery – Based in Oklahoma, the Tishomingo National Fish Hatchery has a captive breeding program to produce head-start turtles for reintroduction.

Natchitoches National Fish Hatchery - Based in Louisiana, the Natchitoches National Fish Hatchery has a captive breeding program to produce head-start turtles for reintroduction.

How you can help

The Service is particularly interested in information about the species’ biology, range, and population trends. Also, the Service needs information on recreational or commercial fishing impacts, poaching and predation rates.

The Service is also seeking information from the commercial and recreation communities about the design of a turtle escape or exclusion device for hoop nets, modified trot line techniques, fish hook material or design, or any other practices that would reduce bycatch.

The complete list of information being sought on the species can be found in the “Information Requested” section of the proposed rule at the following docket number at http://www.regulations.gov, Docket no FWS–R4–ES–2021–0115.

Subject matter experts

Brigette Firmin, Acting Field Supervisor, Louisiana Ecological Services Office, brigette_firmin@fws.gov, 337-291-3108

Designated critical habitat

The Service determined that designation of critical habitat for the alligator snapping turtle may be prudent but is not determinable at this time. In addition to seeking sufficient information to perform the required analyses for proposing critical habitat, the Service is also seeking comment on whether designation of critical habitat would contribute to further declines of the species by providing information on the turtles’ locations, making them vulnerable to take.

Federal Register notices

The following Federal Register documents were automatically gathered by searching the Federal Register Official API with this species’ scientific name ordered by relevance. You can conduct your own search on the Federal Register website.

VIRTUAL MEETING AND HEARING

Virtual public meeting and hearing presentation

Public meeting presentation

Information on attending the virtual public meeting and hearing

The USFWS has scheduled a virtual public information meeting and virtual public hearing on December 7th, 2021, from 6:00 – 8:30pm Central Time (CT); the meeting portion will be from 6:00-7:30pm CT, followed by the public hearing from 7:30-8:30pm CT. The virtual public meeting and hearing are intended to give the public an opportunity to learn more about the proposed listing of the alligator snapping turtle (Macrochelys temmickii) as a threatened species on the Federal List of Endangered and Threatened Wildlife.

The USFWS will hold the virtual public meeting and hearing via the Zoom online platform so that participants can attend remotely. During the virtual public meeting, attendees can join by computer or phone to learn about the proposed listing. The virtual public meeting will start with a brief presentation by USFWS staff followed by an opportunity for attendees to ask questions. The virtual public hearing will be the time for attendees to provide their verbal comments on the proposed listing. Commenters may have an allotted time period to provide comments, and the order of commenters will be based on meeting registration. In addition, public comments can be submitted at: http://www.regulations.gov, Docket no FWS–R4–ES–2021–0115.

We recommend that members of the public log into the Zoom meeting platform 5 minutes prior to the beginning of the presentation to ensure that they can connect. If using the phone-only option, participants will be able to listen to the virtual public meeting, but they will not view the presentation. Instructions will be given regarding how participants will be able to provide their comments for the public hearing.

For security purposes, registration is required. To listen and view the meeting via Zoom, listen to the meeting by telephone, or provide verbal public comment during the meeting by Zoom or telephone, you must register.

Interested members of the public not familiar with the Zoom platform should view the Zoom video tutorials (https://support.zoom.us/hc/en-us/articles/206618765-Zoom-video-tutorials) prior to the public meeting.

If you have technical difficulties registering for the meeting or joining the meeting on December 7th, please email amanda.biedermann@empsi.com.

Instructions for attending the virtual public meeting and hearing: For participants joining by Zoom web platform or Zoom app

  1. Please pre-register using the link provided below:
  2. After registration, participants will receive a confirmation email containing information about joining the meeting.
  3. On the day of the meeting, please join using the information contained in your confirmation email.

For Participants Joining by Phone:

  1. Register for the meeting (see above). On the day of your meeting, call in using one of the toll-free phone numbers listed below. You will be prompted to enter your Meeting ID. Enter your Meeting ID from your confirmation email and press the # key.
  2. You will then be prompted: “Enter your Participant ID followed by #. Otherwise just press #.” Phone-only participants will not receive an individualized Participant ID, so just press the # key.
  3. You will be directly joined to the meeting. If the meeting has not started, you will be on hold until the meeting begins.

Call-in Number (for higher quality, dial a number based on your current location):

Reasonable accomodations

The USFWS is committed to providing access to the virtual public meeting and hearing for all participants. Closed captioning will be available during the public meeting and hearing. Further, a full audio and video recording and transcript of the public meeting will be posted online at https://www.fws.gov/southeast/wildlife/reptiles/alligator-spanning-turtle/#virtual-meeting-and-hearing after the meeting. Participants will also have access to live audio during the public meeting via their telephone or computer speakers. An accessible version of the USFWS’s public meeting presentation will also be posted online at https://www.fws.gov/southeast/wildlife/reptiles/alligator-spanning-turtle/#virtual-meeting-and-hearing prior to the meeting.

Persons with disabilities requiring reasonable accommodations to participate in the meeting and hearing should contact Brigette Firmin at brigette_firmin@fws.gov at least 5 business days prior to the date of the meeting and hearing to help ensure availability. The deadline for those requests is 5:00 p.m. EST November 30, 2021. Persons who use a telecommunications device for the deaf (TDD) may call the Federal Relay Service at 800–877–8339.

  • We're sorry but an error occurred. Visit the Federal Register to conduct your own search.

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