Nashville Zoo is excited to share recent conservation news regarding field work and research for a species right here in Tennessee… the evolutionarily distinct, alligator snapping turtle.
Often confused with the common snapping turtle which thrives in waterways all across Tennessee, the prehistoric-looking alligator snapping turtle is most easily distinguished by three large ridges along the back of its shell and its much larger size. This species is known to spend most of its life in water, often underwater for up to 50 minutes at a time.
Historically, the alligator snapping turtle’s range spanned over 14 states from watersheds of the Mississippi River down to waterways that drain into the Gulf of Mexico. During 1960s and 70s, wild populations of the alligator snapping turtle were decimated due to commercial harvesting for their meat. Current threats include habitat destruction, egg predation and low survival of babies as they are food for many species. Females of this species don’t produce large clutches of eggs making recovery from low populations difficult.
The TN Wildlife Action Plan identifies the alligator snapping turtle as a species of greatest conservation need. This species is also is listed as “In Need of Management” by the Tennessee Wildlife Resource Agency (TWRA) and is considered imperiled by Tennessee Department of Environment and Conservation.
Although the species is now protected from commercial harvesting, damage to populations is extensive. With a commitment be more active in field work and conservation of this unique species, Nashville Zoo planned, proposed, and proudly received a four year, $40,000 grant from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and TWRA to develop and lead a Head Start (collect, hatch, and raise) and Release program for North America’s largest freshwater turtle, the alligator snapping turtle. The Zoo also received a grant from The Barbara J. Mapp Foundation to support this program in 2016.
Nashville Zoo will collaborate with TWRA biologists and visit areas that are known to have alligator snapping turtles. Here, the Zoo will collect females and conduct ultrasound procedures to determine if they are developing eggs. Gravid females (still carrying their eggs) will be brought back to the Zoo in an isolated area for egg collection. Once the eggs are laid, the females will be returned back to where they were collected.
In May, Ectotherm Curator Dale McGinnity and keeper Katie Gregory were able to collect four females that were of proper size to be carrying eggs. Unfortunately, the turtles had already laid their eggs for the year. While our team was unsuccessful, we learned new data about the timing of egg deposition in west Tennessee and will modify our collection dates next year.
In September, TWRA flew in 30 hatchling alligator snapping turtles from Tishomingo National Fish Hatchery in Oklahoma. In a safe environment, the turtles will be raised at Nashville Zoo for three years before releasing them 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.
After release, the turtles will be monitored over time to determine the success of the project at different sites. We are excited to be an intricate part of the protection and conservation of alligator snapping turtles native to Tennessee and around the region. You can see our alligator snapping turtle inside Unseen New World.