Alligator Snapping Turtle Conservation

Alligator Snapping Turtle Conservation

Species Information

Alligator snapping turtles are the largest freshwater turtle in North America and can weigh up to 200 pounds. They can be distinguished from other snapping turtles by three large ridges along the back of their shell, as well as their large head, powerful jaws and substantial shell size. Males will spend most of their time in water, often spending up to 50 minutes underwater. Whereas, females can be seen in the water or nesting on land. They are ectotherms, which means they rely on outside temperature to affect their body temperature. Therefore, if the water is 75 degrees, the turtle is 75 degrees. These prehistoric turtles typically have a life span of 60-80 years.

 Nashville Zoo's Alligator Snapping Turtle can be found in the Unseen World

Population Status

Historically, Alligator Snapping Turtles spanned across 14 states from watersheds of the Mississippi River down to rivers that drain into the Gulf of Mexico. Between 1960 and 1970, the Alligator Snapping Turtle population was decimated due to increased levels of commercial harvest. Unlike common snapping turtles, Alligator Snapping Turtles do not produce large clutches of eggs, therefore the species could not handle the hunting pressure. Today, the species is protected from commercial harvesting, however the damage to their population is extensive. Current threats include habitat destruction, egg predation and low survival of babies as they are food for many species. The TN Wildlife Action Plan identifies the Alligator Snapping Turtle as a species of greatest conservation need. This species is also listed as “In Need of Management” by the Tennessee Wildlife Resource Agency (TWRA).

Here, at Nashville Zoo

In 2016, Nashville Zoo planned, proposed and received a four-year, $40,000 grant from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and Tennessee Wildlife Resource Agency to develop a head-start and release program for the Alligator Snapping Turtle.

In September 2016, the Tennessee Wildlife Resource Agency flew in 30 hatchling Alligator Snapping Turtles from Tishomingo National Fish Hatchery in Oklahoma. Nashville Zoo took the responsibility of keeping them healthy in a safe environment until they are old enough to be released back into the wild. Once the turtles reach three years old, their chances for survival greatly increase because they will be too big to be hunted by most predators.

To continue Nashville Zoo’s work with the species, the herpetology supervisor and a  herpetology keeper traveled to Gallatin, TN to meet up with TWRA agents. The agents had just arrived from Tishomingo National Fish Hatchery and hand delivered 30 hatchling turtles to join the collection already living in our Aquatic Conservation Center here at Nashville Zoo.

During their stay at Nashville Zoo, the Alligator Snapping Turtles became accustomed to different diet studies. One group is raised on a pelleted food diet, while the other group is currently being raised on a cubed food diet. The ingredients and nutrients are the same in both, however, they are different shapes. Doing this allows keepers to monitor their weight and growth and figure out which diet is optimal. The turtles are also exposed to different lighting and water temperature in an attempt to have an understanding of the best environment for them to be released back into. Viewing their responses to these elements will also help biologists be able to find more Alligator Snapping Turtles in the wild.

When the Alligator Snapping Turtles reach the age of three or four, they will be released back into streams where they have been found historically. Before their release, it will be confirmed the environment is sustainable, with plenty of food sources and places to hide. The turtles will be monitored over time to determine the success of the project at different sites after they’re released.  Nashville Zoo is excited to be an intricate part of the protection and conservation of Alligator Snapping Turtles native to Tennessee and around the region.

Group of the Alligator Snapping Turtles from Tishomingo National Fish Hatchery

TWRA Agent holding a hatchling

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