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Alligator Snapping Turtle

Few animals at Shedd have the drawing power of the big alligator snapping turtle sitting doing nothing. With his back to the crowd. What is it that fascinates people? Try size, longevity and perceived danger.

Oh, yes, these turtles get big – in fact, Macroclemys temmincki, as scientists know it, is the largest freshwater turtle species in North America. Alligator snappers can grow to 175 pounds in the wild, and even heavier – the record is 251 pounds – in aquariums and zoos, where the meals are more regular.

The average life span in the wild is about 25 years. That’s not very old for a species that is slow to mature, then continues to reproduce throughout its life span. These turtles have been hunted for meat to the point that they are scarce or extirpated in much of their historic southeastern United States range. Habitat destruction hasn’t made it easy for these turtles to survive, either. Alligator snappers are now protected in many states, including Illinois, the northernmost tip of their range. Not surprisingly, longevity improves in a zoological setting, where one wild-caught adult lived for 70 years.

As ambush hunters, alligator snappers are very dangerous to fishes, rodents, waterfowl, frogs, other turtles and anything else that might be lured into the maw of no return. Looking more mineral – like a moss-covered boulder – than animal, one of these behemoths will sit motionless with its mouth agape, revealing a wiggly wormlike appendage on its tongue. This is a baited trap that can snap shut with enough force to lift the turtle off the bottom of its habitat. The smaller, faster common snapper is more aggressive toward people than its lumbering big cousin. Still, you wouldn’t want to mess with that mouth.

Another perception is that these turtles are kind of dim intellectually. Shedd’s alligator snapper has laid that misconception to rest. He has learned to come to a target to get his food, just like the brainy whales and dolphins do. See him in the Local Waters gallery. Front or back, he’s fascinating.

Read stories and see photos of Shedd's other reptiles.

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