new turtle snaps record
Tenn. (Nov. 5, 1998) -- With his hooked jaws, ridged shell and
mottled skin, the Tennessee Aquarium's newest resident could be
mistaken for a prehistoric creature. But this 249-pound behemoth
is the largest alligator snapping turtle on exhibit in the world.
249 pounds, he's the largest alligator snapping turtle
on display in the world
The turtle was placed in the Aquarium's Delta Tank on Thursday,
Nov. 5. His
ancient, dinosaur-like appearance might make it difficult for
some to guess the new alligator snapper's age. But based on his
size, the new turtle is at least 50 years old.
"Once they reach a certain size, there really is no reliable way
to determine the exact age of these turtles," said Dave Collins,
curator of forests for the Aquarium. "Most alligator snappers
don't grow quite this large. But if they do reach this size, they
tend to live to an extremely old age. Some of these large turtles
have lived to be at least 100 years old."
These freshwater turtles set records for size and longevity, but
they are important for another reason.
"Alligator snapping turtles are unique to our area," Collins said.
"They are the largest freshwater turtles in North America, and
they aren't found anywhere else in the world."
Alligator snapping turtles have a limited habitat and are found
only in the southeastern United States, in rivers that drain into
the Gulf of Mexico. This habitat covers southern Illinois to the
Gulf of Mexico and ranges from Texas to Florida, Collins said.
Sightings are rare in Illinois and Indiana and have been restricted
to large adults.
Sheer size may be the most distinguishing characteristic for adult
alligator snappers, but even the smaller juveniles are easy to
recognize, he explained. The alligator snapper has a short, thick
neck that supports a large head with a powerful, hooked upper
jaw. The shell has three prominent ridges unlike the smooth shell
of the common snapping turtle. The turtle's head, chin and neck
are covered with branching, fleshy projections.
These projections, along with the irregular outline of the shell,
help break up the turtle's profile. When submerged on the bottom
of a river, it is easy to mistake the alligator snapper for a
pile of rocks.
Even the inside of the turtle's mouth is camouflaged. A fleshy,
worm-like appendage on its tongue actually allows the alligator
snapper to "fish" for its dinner, Collins said. Lying motionless
with its mouth open wide, it wiggles this lure to entice small
fish to within striking distance of its steel-trap jaws.
While the alligator snapper is best known for this sit-and-wait
fishing technique, the turtle usually takes a more active approach
to finding dinner. He will hunt and forage, mostly at night, when
prey fish can't see the tongue lure.
So what does a 249-pound freshwater turtle eat? When out in the
wild, alligator snappers eat just about anything: fish, crayfish,
mussels, snails, snakes, small alligators and even other turtles.
Their menu also includes fruit and nuts.
At the Aquarium, the turtle is given a varied diet. In addition
to a special gel-based turtle food, he dines on fish and even
whole rats. He is also given ground oyster shells to help keep
the crushing plates in his jaws from becoming overgrown.
The frequency of feeding and the amount of food the turtle receives
change based on the time of year. Alligator snappers are less
active in the winter and experience a drop in metabolism. During
this time, they can go for weeks without eating.
Mating begins in the fall and continues into early spring. Females
emerge from the water to deposit their eggs and can lay anywhere
from eight to more than 50 eggs. In the wild, the eggs incubate
100 to 140 days. The young hatch in September or October and begin
to head for water.
"These turtles spend most of their lives submerged," Collins explained.
"Males rarely come out of the water to bask in the sun, and females
emerge to lay their eggs."
Otters, raccoons, snakes and some large birds often eat juvenile
turtles and eggs. However, man takes the heaviest toll on alligator
snapper populations. These turtles continue to be heavily exploited
as meat for human consumption, especially in Louisiana. Although
several states have funded studies to track the number of alligator
snapping turtles, these have provided only rough population estimates.
"Because these turtles spend so much of their lives submerged
in murky waters, it is very difficult to get an accurate population
count," Collins said.
Despite the lack of accurate population reports, turtle hunters,
seafood dealers and wildlife managers suggest that natural populations
The alligator snapping turtle receives some level of protection
in 10 of the 14 states where it lives. It is no longer found in
Indiana and is extremely rare in Illinois and Kansas. In fact,
only two alligator snappers have been found in Illinois in the
past 30 years and surveys in Kansas have produced only one. Georgia
and Arkansas have passed laws offering some protection for the
species. However, they have no state protection in Louisiana and
are not federally listed as a threatened or endangered species.
Efforts have been made to place the turtle on federal and international
endangered species lists, but so far those efforts have been unsuccessful.
The Aquarium is moving forward with an alligator snapper breeding
program, Collins said. In addition to the 249-pound alligator
snapper, three males, four females and 19 baby turtles call the
Aquarium home. It is hoped this breeding program will eventually
allow alligator snappers to be released back into the wild.
With more than 500 specimens representing 72 species, the Aquarium
also houses the largest freshwater turtle collection in the world.
This interactive exhibit, Turtles: Nature's Living Sculptures
- Architecture in Bone, allows visitors to examine and compare
species native to the United States with those from throughout
The Tennessee Aquarium in Chattanooga is the largest freshwater
aquarium in the world. Built with private contributions, this
non-profit educational organization is dedicated to the understanding,
conservation and enjoyment of the Tennessee River and related
ecosystems. Admission is $10.95 per adult and $5.95 per child,
ages 3-12. The Aquarium is open every day except Thanksgiving
and Christmas and is accessible to people with disabilities.
The Aquariums TDD number is (423) 265-4498, and FM assistive
listening devices are available on site. For more information,