Alligator Snapping Turtle

Alligator Snapping Turtle

[ Macroclemys temminckii ]

Quick Facts

BODY LENGTH: 15 to 26 inches or longer

35 to 150 or more pounds

WILD DIET: fish, turtles, clams, insects, plant material, and carrion
ZOO DIET: whole fish
DISTRIBUTION: northern Florida west to Texas; from the Gulf Coast north to southern Illinois, Indiana, Missouri, and Kansas; rare through most of their range
HABITAT: muddy bottoms of deep rivers and lakes


Ancient Anglers

Not your run-of-the-mill turtle
Alligator snapping turtles differ from the small, smooth-shelled green turtles you might be familiar with in several ways. First, there's size. Alligator snappers are the largest freshwater turtles in North America and one of the largest in the world. The largest specimen known weighed 219 pounds! In addition to the size difference, their appearance is unique in the turtle world.

Why "alligator"?
The shell of an alligator snapping turtle has a series of large ridges, similar to those seen on alligatorshence the name. Because of the ridges, the alligator snapper looks more like a large rock than a turtle. Compared to other turtles, a snapper's shell looks like it's a size or two too small. Sometimes the shell and head are overgrown with algae, which adds to the snapping turtles' camouflage.

A face only a mother could love
A startling feature of alligator snapping turtles is their head. It's huge relative to snappers' body size. Covered in ridges, the head looks like it should be on a much larger reptile. Their eyes are small, located on the side of the head just above the upper jaw. They have a hooked beak that looks like a bird of prey's beak, only much more massive. The beak is sharp, strong, and able to break a big stickor a fingerwith ease. Inside alligator snapping turtles' mouth is their most amazing feature...

The waiting game
Alligator snapping turtles are sit-and-wait predators. They lie completely motionless on the muddy bottom of a river or lake, mouths open. Usually they face the current so they can meet fish swimming downstream. A tiny pink bit of flesh that looks remarkably like a wiggling worm juts from their tongue. They wave this lure back and forth. In the murky water, the lure looks like a tasty morsel to a passing fish. But it's a trap, and the unlucky fish finds out where the "snapping" part of the turtles’ name comes from.

Leaving the water
Only nesting females venture onto land. A female drags itself out of the water to the nearest dry ground and digs a hole. She lays 10 to 50 or more eggs and buries them under dirt, sand, and leaves. The sex of the nestlings depends on the temperature during incubation. At high and low temperatures, more females hatch out. At moderate temperatures, it's mainly males. Either way, the 1.5-inch turtles look like miniature adults, and they are quick to find safe haven in the water after hatching.

Alligator snapping turtles at Brookfield Zoo
You can find a big alligator snapping turtle next to the North American river otters in The Swamp. Look carefully! The snapper is well camouflaged, and is often completely still.

Get Involved

Conservation Fund of the Chicago Zoological Society