The alligator snapping turtle is one of the largest freshwater turtles in the world. They can weigh up to 90kg and the shell can reach three quarters of a metre in length. The large head, which may be 25cm across, has powerful sharp-edged jaws capable of crushing and severing a finger. They are usually sluggish, placid animals but will bite if handled roughly. The shell is olive brown with a series of raised ridges running front to back similar to the scales of an alligator, hence its common name. The underside of the shell is yellowish in colour.
The species’ range has dwindled somewhat in recent times due to wetland clearance and hunting for food. It is now almost totally confined to the Mississippi River system in the southern USA. Most of an alligator snapping turtle’s life is spent in the water. They can stay submerged for long periods of time and will even hibernate over winter at the bottom of ponds and lakes.
The alligator snapper’s main food is fish. You may wonder how a slow-moving, sedate predator can catch such swift prey. This is achieved by the use of its tongue. The turtle rests on the bottom of the pond with its mouth wide open. It remains perfectly still except for its tongue, which is pink and long and thin in shape. When this is wriggled, it bears a remarkable resemblance to a live worm. The fish is attracted to the potential food item and swims into the gaping mouth, which is slammed shut with lightning speed. Other food items such as frogs, invertebrates and even ducklings may also be taken.
Alligator snapping turtles usually mate during the spring. Around two months later, usually in early June, the female will drag herself out onto a suitable sandbank where she will dig a hole with her rear hind feet and bury between 8 to 52 eggs. They are then covered with sand and left to incubate for between 100 to 140 days.