Go to section navigationGo to content
National Zoo | Friends of the National Zoo logo
Visit Animals, etc. About Us Activities & Events Conservation & Science Education Publications Join FONZ Support the Zoo Shop
Reptiles & Amphibians
Home |...| Reptiles & Amphibians | Facts | Fact Sheets
Reptile Discovery Center
Reptile and Amphibian Index
Fact Sheets
For Kids
Reptile Enrichment
Conservation & Science
Photo Gallery
Gharial Cam
Related Resources

Teachers: download Amphibian Alert! a curriculum for teaching children about amphibians and their global population declines.

Alligator Snapping Turtle

Order: Chelonia
Family: Chelydridae
Genus/species: Macroclemys temminckii

Alligator snapping turtles are the largest freshwater turtles. They weigh between 155 and 175 pounds (70 to 80 kg). They are characterized by three large, pronounced ridges, or keels, that run from the front to the back of the carapace. With powerful jaws and a large head, they are unique among snapping turtles for having eyes on the side of the head. The alligator snapping turtle looks very primitive and has been called the dinosaur of the turtle world.

Alligator snapping turtles spend most of their time in the water, and generally only nesting females venture on land. However, males have been known to bask. They are solitary, and there is very little social structure or parental care. The turtles stay submerged for 40 to 50 minutes at a time, and only go to the surface for air. They are so motionless under water that algae may cover their backs and make the turtles almost invisible to fish.

Distribution and Habitat
Alligator snapping turtles are native to the southeastern region of the United States. They are confined to the river systems that drain into the Gulf of Mexico.

They generally live in the deep water of large rivers, canals, lakes, and swamps. Hatchlings and juveniles usually live in small streams.

Diet in the Wild
The alligator snapping turtle is both a scavenger and an active hunter. It most actively forages for food during the night. During the day, it usually lies quietly in the bottom of a dark body of water and opens its jaw to reveal a small pink worm-like lure in the back of its gray mouth. The lure attracts fish, and when the fish enter the jaws, they are either swallowed whole, sliced in two by the sharp jaws, or impaled on the sharp tips of the upper and lower jaws. The alligator snapping turtle eats any kind of fish and also eats frogs, snakes, snails, worms, clams, crayfish, aquatic plants, and other turtles. The turtles feed year round by taking advantage of warm winter days to search for food.

Zoo Diet
They are fed mice, worms, fish, and prepared diet.

During reproduction, the male alligator snapping turtle mounts the back of the female. He grasps her shell with all four of his feet and inseminates her. It is unlikely that females reproduce more than once a year, and some females lay eggs in alternate years.

The turtles mate in early spring in Florida and late spring in the Mississippi Valley. They nest about two months later in a nest about 160 feet (50 m) from the shore. All nests are dug in the sand and clutch success is highly variable. A clutch may contain eight to 52 eggs and incubation takes 3.5 to 4.5 months. Hatchlings, therefore, emerge in the fall.

The sex of the hatchling is determined by incubation temperature and the hatchlings look very much like adults. Sexual maturity occurs in 11 to 13 years.

Life Span
They can live between 20 and 70 years in captivity.

There is no special status for the alligator snapping turtle. The main threat to the alligator snapping turtle is people who kill these reptiles for their meat.

Alligator snapping turtles play a role in freshwater ecosystems. Adults are not a source of food for any animals other than humans, but eggs and hatchlings are a source of food for large fish, raccoons, and birds. The adults, however, are important predators. Humans find them valuable for their unique appearance and their meat.

Fun Facts
There is an unverified legend that a 403-pound (183 kg) alligator snapping turtle was found in the Neosho River in Kansas in 1937.

Source of Information
All or part of this information was provided by the link toAnimal Diversity Web and Museum of Zoology of the University of Michigan.
It appears here with their permission. The original author of this information was Paul DiLaura.

For more information, including references, see the Animal Diversity Web account for this species, here:
link tohttp://animaldiversity.ummz.umich.edu/ site/ accounts/ information/ Macrochelys_temminckii.html.

Why Ireland Has No Snakes

Gharials at the Reptile Discovery Center

Reptiles to Robins: The Ancestry of Birds

Florida's Creeping Crawlers

Sea Turtles: Ambassadors of the Ocean

Volunteer at the Reptile Discovery Center

Adopt a Burmese Python, Cuban Crocodile, or Komodo Dragon

Sea Turtle Conservation

FONZ visa

For Visitors Educators Scientists Students Kids Families Members Volunteers Donors Job Seekers Media
Zoo E-news
African Savanna Amazonia Asia Trail Asian Elephants Backyard Biology Birds Giant Pandas Great Apes and Other Primates Great Cats Invertebrates Kids' Farm North America Ocean Living Reptiles and Amphibians Small Mammals Help SiteMap Contact Smithsonian Privacy Policy Copyright Policy