Geographical Range Southeastern United States
Habitat Rivers, lakes, swamps, canals
Scientific Name Macroclemys temminckii
Conservation Status Common

A Giant Among Turtles

The alligator snapping turtle is the largest freshwater turtle in North America. These reptiles can grow to be two-and-a-half feet long and weigh more than 200 pounds! These are not turtles to be trifled with. Aside from their sheer size, they have powerful jaws, a sharply hooked beak, bear-like claws, and a long, powerful tail.

Go Fish

What do alligator snapping turtles do when they get hungry? Go fishing! They lure fish into their mouth by wiggling their tongue, which has a special attachment shaped like a worm. When fish are fooled and come closer, they wind up as the turtles' next meal!

Besides fish, alligator snapping turtles will also eat other turtles, frogs, snakes, snails, worms, clams, crayfish, and aquatic plants. That's quite a menu!

Little Snappers

When alligator snappers reach the age of about 11 or so, they're ready to mate. Mating takes place in the water in late spring. In early summer, the female leaves the water to dig a nest and lay eggs - up to 52!

As is true for many reptiles, the temperature in the nest controls whether the babies will be male or female. If the temperature is moderate, the hatchlings will be male. If the temperature is high or low, they will be female. The little turtles make their appearance when the eggs hatch in late summer or early fall.

Though adult alligator snappers don't have to worry much about animal predators, their eggs and hatchlings make a tasty meal for large fish, raccoons, and birds.

Liquid Lifestyle

Alligator snapping turtles are almost totally aquatic (water-dwelling). They come out of the water only to bask in the sun (when they need to warm up) or to nest (in the case of females).

Alligator snappers spend the daytime hours hiding in submerged logs or roots, waiting for fish to swim by. They become active at night, when they walk slowly across the bottom of the river (or lake or swamp) in search of food. Despite their aquatic lifestyle, they don't do much swimming.

A Giant Problem

Alligator snapping turtles are in trouble in the wild. They suffer from habitat loss, water pollution, and over-harvesting. Though some states have laws that prevent their harvesting, in other states it's allowed with permits.

These animals need our help to recover. You can do your part by helping to protect their habitat. Avoid activities that lead to water pollution, organize a local stream clean-up day, or help restore a wetland area.

Fun Facts

  • Alligator snappers can stay submerged for up to 50 minutes before they need to come up to breathe. This may seem like a long time, but it's actually less than many other turtle species.
  • Alligator snapping turtles live about 50 years.
  • The alligator snapping turtle has been called the "dinosaur of the turtle world" because of its primitive look and dinosaur-like tail.

Class: Reptilia
Order: Testudines
Family: Chelydridae