Alligator Snapping Turtle Facts
In this post we will provide you with a complete Alligator Snapping Turtle Care Guide along with some additional facts. We hope that this care guide will help you in providing the proper care for your new pet turtle.
Covered with long dark rows of pyramid-shaped spikes and weighing in at up to 220 lbs., the alligator snapping turtle is probably the closest a person can come to owning a pet dinosaur.
Alligator snapping turtles belong to the genus Macrochelys, which was recently separated into three separate species: the original species, Macrochelys temminckii, and now also M. suwannensis and M. apalachicolae, named after the Suwannee and Apalachicola Rivers where they live.
Unlike their cousins, the common snapping turtles (genus Chalydra), alligator snapping turtles are found mostly in the river systems of the southeastern United States. Snappers were once abundant from the Florida Panhandle and eastern Texas to as far north as southeastern Iowa.
However, due to overharvesting of their meat and habitat loss, they are now endangered in many states. (Campbell’s Soup used to produce frozen turtle soup in the 60’s and 70’s.)
As pets, the thing to keep in mind is their incredible size. While a juvenile turtle can be stored in low-sided aquariums, such as breeder’s tanks, it will eventually outgrow it.
Ultimately, your 150+ pound turtle will need to go outdoors, in a greenhouse or other large outdoor enclosure where adequate temperatures can be maintained.
This shouldn’t come as a surprise, then, that the alligator snapping turtle is the largest freshwater turtle in North America. This turtle species can grow to large sizes and, as a result, needs a large habitat to thrive in. It lives in water, so you’ll need to ensure that there’s a large tank or a small pond where it can live.
They are also long-lived. Snappers can live in captivity for 20 to 70 years. (In the wild, snappers have been collected with two-hundred-year-old arrowheads and musket balls in their shells!)
Inside this alligator snapping turtle guide, you will learn some alligator snapping turtle facts everything you need to know to raise a healthy snapper of your own.
Alligator Snapping TurtlePhysical Description
Like other reptiles, alligator snapping turtles are cold-blooded. In other words, they are at the mercy of their environment for survival. In the southeastern United States, where they originate, they’re warmed by the sunny climate. Since adult snappers are too large to be kept indoors, they must be located in a greenhouse (or other outdoor enclosure) with subtropical conditions. Since they thrive in warm conditions, you might have to provide additional resources to ensure that they don’t get too cold.
If you live in a colder area, you can’t just let them out in a pond or in your yard. You‘ll have to arrange a greenhouse to ensure that this species of freshwater turtles can survive well.
Like other turtles, alligator snapping turtles have a fused backbone and ribs that together form their shell. The turtle’s shell is formed of the carapace (upper shell), the plastron (lower shell) and the bridge, which connects the two. The shell is further protected by horny plates, which are situated prominently on top of three long rows of spiked ridges—much like an alligator’s skin.
Like other turtles, alligator snapping turtles have a beak-like mouth and no teeth. Inside their mouth is a worm-shaped tongue which the turtle uses to lure and catch fish. Like other reptiles, birds, and mammals, alligator snapping turtles breath air but spend nearly all of their time in and near the water.
Physical Differences between the Alligator Snapper and Common Snapper
The alligator snapping turtle is physically different from the common snapping turtle in a number of ways. The most obvious difference is the snapper’s shell, which has three distinct rows (keels) of spikes that give it a decidedly more primitive look.
The neck of the alligator snapper is much shorter than the common snapper and has many spiky tubercles. The alligator snapper also has a more triangular head and a longer tail. Finally, an alligator snapper’s eyes are surrounded by fleshy looking eyelashes, and are located more on the sides of its head than they are on the common snapper.
How to Tell the Sex of Your Snapper
The sex of an alligator snapping turtle can be determined by examining its physiology. The most obvious difference is its size: males are generally larger than females. The cloaca of a mature (>12 years old) male snapper protrudes beyond its shell, whereas that of a female does not. (The cloaca is a single opening to the genital, digestive, and urinary tracts that can be found in amphibians, birds and reptiles.) A male snapper will also tend to have a thicker tail.
Alligator Snapping Turtle Behavior
Despite its name, the alligator snapping turtle is not very aggressive by nature. Snappers hunt by lying motionless in the water and displaying a pink-colored tongue, which looks just like a burrowing worm. The snapper waits patiently, sometimes for up to one hour, until a fish swims into its open mouth.
In the wild, alligator snapping turtles are known to be nocturnal feeders, but in captivity, they can be active both day and night. However, because they spend almost all of their time in the deeper waters of large rivers, we don’t know much about them. Alligator snappers are almost never found basking, and seldom do they leave the rivers and ponds they live in except when females go to nest.
Buying a Healthy Snapper
A turtle that has not been careful for properly may not do well whether you care for it correctly or not. Unfortunately, it’s not always easy to tell if that has been the case. Given the legal protections against the commercial harvest (and/or sale) of snappers in many states and countries, buying online may be your only choice.
On the other hand, if you are acquiring a snapper from someone you know, or through a legitimate breeder, dealer or rescue, you can improve your luck by examining the turtle first. However you acquire it, be sure to hold on to your proof of purchase should you have to answer to your local wildlife authorities.
In general, large-scale dealers will not likely know the histories of each and every turtle they sell since they handle so many. Likewise, unless a donor family has provided records, a rescue operation may not know anything about a turtle’s age, or whether veterinary records exist. Professional breeders will likely be the most informed, since they hatch the eggs themselves and keep records. Turtles that are sold by street vendors should almost always be avoided.
If possible, try to inspect the environment in which the turtles are being sold. It can show you whether 1) the turtle is being handled properly, and if so, 2) how to care for them yourself. Keep in mind the following questions when you visit:
· Are the turtles overcrowded?
· You can answer this question by checking out their environment and the water surrounding them. Is their water relatively clean? Overcrowding and dirty water tend to go hand in hand, and if you see clouding and dirt in the water, it probably means that the overall atmosphere is crowded.
· Are they active and alert?
· Are they being sold with other exotic species? (In order to reduce the risk of disease transmission, turtles generally shouldn’t be paired with species from other continents.)
By law, the snappers should be no smaller than 4 inches long. However, due to a loophole in the law, which allows for the sale of turtles for “bona fide scientific, educational, or exhibition purposes, other than use as pets,” this practice is somewhat common. Try to avoid these types of pet stores. Young hatchlings, while cute, are generally less hardy than snappers who’ve had more time to mature.
Once you’ve determined that you actually have what you need to care for your turtle properly, you should finally conduct a simple physical examination of the turtle you wish to buy.
Before you do so, remember this: mature snappers have finger-length claws and a powerful beak that could easily be put to use on your fingers and toes. Adult alligator snapping turtles should only be handled by experienced turtle owners.
Because of the size of these turtles, handling an adult turtle can be a challenge. Small turtles can be held, like any other turtle, by grasping the turtle’s shell from the sides.
For large turtles, which can weigh as much as an adult person, the shell should be grasped just behind the head and in front of the tail. Be especially careful about the placement of their mouth. (Snappers have been known to bite through broom handles!)
Now make some general observations. For instance, if the turtle is not heavy, it may be sick. The turtle should be alert. Inactivity might indicate that something could be wrong.
Wild snappers often relax after a period of handling, but its initial reaction should be strong. Note the presence of any soft spots or discolorations on the top and bottom shell, which could indicate shell rot. Finally, note the presence of any open wounds. While a closed wound is fine, an open wound may require the attention of a vet.
Collecting Snappers from the Wild
Collecting turtles from the wild may not be legal where you live. Because turtles produce relatively few eggs each year, the removal of an egg-laying adult female could be incredibly damaging to the success of wild populations.
In some states, there are limits to the number of snappers that can be trapped, whereas there may be no limits to the number of turtles that can be hatched from your own (or a turtle farm’s) breeding stock. Call your state wildlife agency and review local laws to find out whether collecting one is legal.
Is it Legal to Buy or Sell Snappers?
That depends on where you live. Alligator snapping turtles are somewhat protected throughout their range. In many states, they are not legal to buy, sell or own without a permit. However, it is sometimes legal to hatch them from your own stock. And many states simply ban the sale of locally obtained non-game wildlife.
In the United States, the sale of snappers under 4 inches in length is illegal everywhere, but this restriction does not apply to exports. In 2006 the alligator snapping turtle was listed as a Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES) III species.
Bear in mind that the legal status of these turtles is always changing. In 2012 the Center for Biological Diversity petitioned to have alligator snapping turtles protected under the U.S. Endangered Species Act. The results of that petition are still pending.
How to Take Your Snapper Home
Your snapper shouldn’t be brought home in a container of water, which they could drown in. Instead, simply place your turtle inside a small shoebox or plastic container that has been lined with a slightly wet material, such as dampened paper towels or shredded newspaper. Larger turtles might need more padding because they can bruise during transport.
Your container should be securely covered with a lid and have air holes for breathing. Finally, be mindful of the temperature you will be traveling home in. In colder weather, you can double insulate your container with a Styrofoam box (with air holes) and warm it with heat pads. For large adults, you will likely need to be more creative.
Alligator Snapping Turtle Care Overview
Because of their incredible size, alligator snapping turtles are not the best choice of turtle for beginning turtle owners. Snappers can be stored in breeder’s tanks as juveniles.
Expect them to grow at a rate of about 1 to 2 inches per year. Once your snapper begins to approach 1 foot in length, you will need to move it into a livestock water trough or pond. It is up to you to maintain the cleanliness of the water in the pond.
After all, in the rivers where they’re found, the water is constantly replenished. Snappers produce a lot of waste and are known to make a mess of their food, so you will most likely need to filter and circulate the water in their pond. You will also need manage the temperature of the water if you live in a cooler climate.
As the owner of a pet turtle, you’re ultimately trying to provide for the following basic needs:
- clean water
- a place for swimming and hiding
- a heat source
- a proper diet
You should also have a way to monitor the conditions in their water. In terms of the tank size, if you have a baby hatchling, you might only start with a 40-gallon breeder tank.
The dimensions of a breeder tank measuring 36″L x 18″D x 16″H offer your snapper more surface area than other tanks, and make it easier to reach with heaters and pumps. In the following sections, we’ll describe in more detail how to satisfy each of these requirements.
Alligator Snapping Turtle Habitat
Small snappers can be stored temporarily in a breeder tank, or an aquarium. Keep in mind that such storage is only a temporary solution, and should only be considered while your snapper is young (<1 foot in length). Expect your turtle to grow at a rate of about an inch or two per year.
Snapper keepers also sometimes house their turtles in livestock water troughs, known as stock tanks, that are made of galvanized steel or plastic. Steel tanks must be lined with a pond liner to prevent potentially dangerous metals from leaching into the water. Plastic tanks, on the other hand, do not require lining.
Stock tanks are available at farm supply, home supply, and pet supply stores. Some stock tanks come with drains and plugs for easy draining with a rubber hose, but stands and screens are typically custom-made by handy keepers.
For perspective, the minimum size stock tank for an adult alligator snapping turtle might have a 700 to 800-gallon capacity, which could occupy over 16 square feet of space in your yard.
Tank Size and Depth
You should expect to provide no less than a 700-gallon stock tank for an adult snapper. The water level should be semi-shallow. You want to make sure that it’s at least as deep as the turtle’s shell is long. In other words, make it deep enough to swim in but shallow enough that your turtle can stick its neck up to the surface to breath.
Substrate (and Hiding Places)
If your juvenile snapper is being stored in a tank, most owners recommend using no substrate at all. This helps to keep the water clean by providing fewer surfaces for bacteria and algae to grow on.
However, your snapper will feel most comfortable if they are given a place to hide. Driftwood or plants, whether artificial or real, will allow your turtle to satisfy this basic instinct. You can also line the tank with rocks that are too large to be accidentally swallowed.
Given the snapper’s natural desire to burrow and wait for food, you should be careful not to place any rocks that your turtle could become trapped beneath.
One way to avoid any accidents with large rocks is to use a nontoxic epoxy or aquarium sealant to secure rocks in place. Also be careful about the use of sharp rocks, which could scrape your turtle’s shell and cause an infection.
Unlike many other breeds of turtles, snappers do not bask very often, if at all. They are almost entirely aquatic. However, they do need to breath air and will like to rest from time to time, so be sure to provide a shallow area where they can do this. In ponds, the sky’s the limit in terms of the kinds of natural features you can add. Logs and rocks can provide places for your turtle to climb out of the water, or hide beneath.
Basic Pond Configuration
In northern latitudes, you are at the mercy of the weather. So before doing anything, you need to determine if the temperatures in your pond will be warm enough for your turtle.
The bottom of the pond should be no less than 75 °F (the water at the surface may be warm, but it may be cooler down below). If it gets cooler where you live, a greenhouse can extend the outdoor season by a season or two.
You should also look to create a balance of sunshine and shade by planting cattails, reeds and other marginal plants around the perimeter. Shade helps to create subtle temperature differences within the water that your turtle can take advantage of to regulate its own body temperature.
Once your pond is built, you’ll need to enclose the pond area to reduce the threat of potential predators, such as dogs, cats, opossums and raccoons.
In terms of the pond itself, your best choices are either a pond liner or cement. Cement is more durable and will give you more flexibility to shape the pond, though it will cost more.
You can spare some of this expense if you can do this by yourself. However, should you have any doubts about your ability, you’d be wise to hire a professional cement layer to do the job.
Some form of filtration and circulation is often necessary to keep the water oxygenated and clear. It is possible to construct a pond that doesn’t use filtration.
If you choose not to filter your water, you won’t have to deal with hassle of keeping filters clear of debris. However, you may still want to have some means to drain the pond. In this case, a submersible pump (“sump pump”) that is enclosed in a perforated container (to prevent clogging) is one option.
Pond Size and Depth
If you constructed a 20-foot diameter pond with a very gentle slope and a maximum depth of 3 feet at the center, this would hold over 1,500 gallons of water. Of this 1,500 gallons, almost 1,100 gallons would be shallow and relatively warm.
Plant native vegetation in the center (depending on where you live) and place old logs from the middle depths to the shallow water areas to create places for your turtles to hide. You can also help to naturalize the pond edge by planting marginal plants, such as cattails and rushes.
Your turtle will undoubtedly eat some of these, but they are still worth the effort because they provide shade, hiding places and slow-moving water that will help the sediment to fall out.
Driftwood and leaf litter provide excellent hiding places and also help to acidify the water and prevent algae growth. The leaf litter will just sink to the bottom of the pond and is not likely to be stirred up by your turtle.
The water in a manmade pond will not be as well-aerated as the rivers and tributaries where snappers usually live. For this reason, you’ll want to keep oxygen levels high by promoting circulation.
The use of waterfalls, fountains, external filters and air stones can help. One of the benefits of a healthy, well-oxygenated pond is that it will naturally process most if not all of your turtle’s waste by itself. You can help to keep your pond well-oxygenated by circulating the water and minimizing the amount of decaying material that’s inside it.
In a natural system, decay is of course a normal part of life, but snappers are large turtles, so you’ll need to manage your pond environment more closely.
In other words, don’t overfeed your turtle and be mindful of organic materials (e.g., waterfowl, dying vegetation, algal blooms) that may be entering your pond. For added protection, you can also place a submersible pump at the center of the pond where most of the waste will collect.
If you’re pond is large enough, you can add guppies, rosy reds or small minnows for your snapper to eat. Goldfish and other non-feeder types of fish are generally not recommended because of the treatments (copper sulfate) they receive at fish farms, which may be toxic to your turtle.
Keep in mind that alligator snapping turtles don’t behave the same way with fish as smaller turtles do. While smaller species of turtle populations can thrive alongside fish and survive on commercial turtle foods and leafy greens, alligator snapping turtles can’t be put into a tank with pet fish, as they’ll definitely end up eating them.
Create an enclosure that will prevent your turtle from getting out and unwanted visitors from getting in. The fence should be at least 2 to 3 times higher than the carapace length of your turtle, with each post buried at least a foot into the ground. You can also protect against predatory birds (for younger snappers) by installing an overhead net or chicken wire.
If you provide your own electric heat (or the heat from your house) and a low-hanging heat lamp, a greenhouse may provide the insulation you need to protect your turtle from winter’s cold. At the very least, a greenhouse can raise temperatures enough to be suitable for hibernation during cooler months.
Site the greenhouse where it will be exposed to morning sun. Deciduous trees can block sun during the warmer months and allow sunlight to pass through during the rest of the year. A greenhouse can also be equipped with a skylight to prevent the buildup of heat.
Heat and Sunlight
Alligator snappers are native to the southeastern United States, though they have been known to range as far north as southeastern Iowa and western Illinois. In the wild, alligator snappers have been found submerged at water temperatures ranging between 70 to 74 °F.
In captivity, snapper turtles have refused to eat at air temperatures falling below 65 °F. Snapper breeders suggest keeping the temperature at 82 °F year round to prevent hibernation during the first few years of your snapper’s life. (See Hibernation below.)
If your snapper is being kept outdoors, the sun will provide your turtle with natural heat and will help your turtle to synthesize vitamin D3. Vitamin D3 helps your turtle’s body absorb the calcium it needs to build a strong shell and bones.
If, on the other hand, you have a juvenile snapper in a breeder’s tank or indoor aquarium, a UVB light will keep your turtle healthy. UVB is the wavelength of sunlight that turtles use to synthesize vitamin D3. Enclose heating cables in a plastic pipe to keep your turtle safe.
In the wild, alligator snapping turtles are typically found in large rivers. The water there is always moving and is replenished and cleaned by nature. However, in the home environment, keeping your turtle’s water clean is up to you. You should be most concerned about the oxygen levels in your pond and nutrients, which can cause algae to grow.
The best way to keep your turtle’s aquarium clean is by changing the water often. Change the water every week to four weeks, depending on the size of your tank and the performance of your filter. If your water looks grimy, you should change it. You can also use a water testing kit to measure the nutrient levels in the water.
How to Change the Water in Your Aquarium
No matter what kind of setup you have, the procedure for changing out the water is pretty straightforward. If you have a small tank, remove your turtle and any accessories, pour out the tank water, wipe down the tank walls with paper towels, and refill. If you have a large tank, use a siphon or mechanical pump, such as a pond or utility pump, to remove the water.
A siphon is basically a hose that you can drain your tank with. You connect the siphon to a bucket or drain it through a window. It’s best not to drain tank water into a sink that will be used for eating. (Turtles are frequent carriers of Salmonella bacteria.)
Pump types vary. Pond pumps are convenient because they can be placed directly into your tank to pump water through a hose. If you have a particularly dirty tank, or a sick turtle, you can also clean your tank with a mild detergent (or a 5-percent bleach solution).
Filters clean water in one of three ways: mechanically, biologically, or chemically. With mechanical filtration, the largest pieces of debris are simply filtered out. Biological filtration works by creating surfaces that encourage the growth of beneficial nitrifying bacteria.
These bacteria turn toxic nitrogen waste into less harmful byproducts. Chemical filtration usually involves activated carbon. Activated carbon filters remove some of the organics from the water but can lose their effectiveness pretty quickly.
Canister filters are the best filters you can buy, but they’re fairly expensive. Aquarium owners like how much filter media they hold (compared to in-tank filters), the fact that you can hide them beneath your tank, and their relative lack of noise. There’s a learning curve to using them, but once you get the hang of it, they’re said to be the best. They can also be set up to promote better water flow in your tank.
If you’d like to save money, you can also make your own tote filter. You’ll need a number of supplies, including your own mechanical and biological filter media.
Foam pads make suitable mechanical filters, and there are number of options for biological filter media, such as bioballs or lava rock. Once acquired, you can supposedly set up a tote filtration system in under an hour.
It’s important to provide your turtle with a pond that is naturally replenished or one that you can circulate yourself. Pond pumps have been designed for just this purpose.
Experts recommend turning over the water in your turtle’s pond once every two hours in a large pond and as frequently as once every half hour in a small pond (under 500 gallons).
Pumps are rated according to the number of gallons they turn over every hour. For example, the Danner 02527 Pondmaster 700 GPH Pump turns over 700 gallons of water per hour, or 350 gallons of water per half hour, etc. To continue performing at this level, you need to clean the filter as often as it clogs.
In addition to a pump, which will help to circulate and oxygenate the water in your pond, a filtration system will go a long way to keeping your water clean. Many pond owners swear by pressured filtration systems equipped with UV lights to sterilize the water. An example is the 4000 Gal Pressure Bio Filter w/ 13W UV Sterilizer Light.
Pond De-icing Heaters
In colder climates, you may want to use a pond de-icing heater to keep a portion of the pond from totally freezing over. Having an exposed surface can help to increase oxygen levels throughout your pond. (See Hibernation below.)
Alligator Snapping Turtle Diet
How Much and How Often
Alligator snapping turtles are opportunistic feeders. In the wild they’ll eat everything from duckweed and algae to crustaceans, carrion, birds and small mammals. Feed them a similar diet. Feed hatchlings and juveniles every day and adult snapping turtles every other day.
Feed them only as much as they need, and will eat, because any uneaten food will tend to dirty their water. One rule of thumb is to offer your snapper an amount of food that is roughly equal to the size of their head.
Another approach is to feed your turtle as much as they will take until their eating slows down significantly. The next time you feed them, offer half of this amount. Your turtle’s feeding response will let you know if you need to increase or decrease their serving size.
What to Feed Your Snapper
Snapper’s eat a mostly carnivorous diet. In the wild, they eat mostly fish, using their worm-shaped tongue to lure fish, and dead animals. Snappers also eat plants, such as oak acorns, tupelo fruits, wild grapes, roots, palmetto fruits, hickory nuts and persimmons, and animals, such as salamanders, crayfish, mussels, snakes, alligators, turtles, clams, mammals and snails. Clearly, variety is key.
In zoos, snappers have been fed mice, worms, fish and specially prepared foods. You can feed your turtle an age-appropriate commercial feed to round out its diet but only in addition to lots of raw protein. Snappers will eat raw chicken and beef sliced into small pieces.
Leafy greens, fruits and vegetables also make good foods. In terms of live foods, your turtle will eat minnows, guppies, worms, crabs, shiner and shrimp. Once they reach 5 or 6 inches in length, you can increase the size of the live foods they eat.
Some foods, however, should be avoided. Steer clear of non-feeder stock such as goldfish, which can build up toxins in their flesh. In general, you want to avoid all processed foods (e.g., hot dogs), except for those that have been made especially for aquatic turtles.
Alligator Snapping Turtle Hibernation
Given the southerly origin of the alligator snapping turtle, they likely do not need to hibernate for long. In fact, some experts consider hibernating backyard turtles too risky because the conditions in your own backyard will likely not be the same as they are in the wild. You can prevent your snapper from hibernating by simply keeping its water temperature high (low 80s).
If you will be hibernating your turtle, it should be in a climate that’s at least somewhat comparable to its native habitat (as far north as southeastern Kansas). Also, since you should only be hibernating healthy turtles, many breeders suggest that it’s safer not to hibernate pet snappers during their first few years of life.
Conditions that are favorable to successfully overwintering your turtle include having 1) a large pond surface area to encourage the best exchange of oxygen, 2) sediment, leaf litter and/or sand at the bottom of the pond where your turtle can dig in to rest, 3) a way to increase the oxygen in your pond, such as a circulation pump or air pump and, if necessary, 4) a submersible heater. Your turtle needs at least a foot of water at the bottom of the pond that won’t be frozen.
Keep the oxygen levels high, because your turtle will by then be absorbing oxygen through its skin. Also, the water temperature should not fall much below around 50 F.
Any more than that could prevent hibernation and could be stressful for your turtle. As the temperatures cool, your turtle will eat less and less. Once your turtle stops eating and the temperatures approach 50 F, you can stop feeding.
How to Handle Your Snapper
Snapper’s are solitary creatures and are unlikely to bite someone unless they’re being handled or provoked. A smaller snapper can be safely held by the sides of its shell. If you must handle a larger snapper, grab the turtle’s shell with one hand just behind the head and the other hand just behind the tail. Never grab its tail because you could injure its spine.
Amphibians and reptiles, such as turtles, are frequent carriers of the Salmonella bacteria. Salmonella bacteria cause salmonellosis in humans, a gastrointestinal disorder that can lead to fever, diarrhea, abdominal cramps, and sometimes vomiting. In rare cases, Salmonella can even spread to your blood, bones, and brain.
There is no way of telling, simply by looking at it, whether your turtle has the salmonella bacteria on its body or not.
In 1975, after a rash of salmonella outbreaks among children, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) began regulating the sale of turtles with carapace lengths less than 4 in long.
The best way to protect your family from the possibility of infection by Salmonella is to wash your hands thoroughly any time you handle a turtle. Do this immediately after handling one, taking care not to touch your mouth before washing your hands.
Young children are at greater risk of developing complications from Salmonella infections because their immune systems are not fully mature. They’re also more likely to put their hands in their mouths. The Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) actually recommends not even owning a reptile or amphibian if children under 5 years of age are living in the home.
(This is in addition to the much greater risk of a child putting themselves in harm’s way and being bitten by your snapper.)
Your Snapper’s Health
The buildup of algae on your turtle’s shell can hide injuries or infections that may need to be addressed quickly. You can remove some of the algae on your turtle’s shell by scrubbing it periodically with a soft brush and room-temperature water.
Swollen eyes may indicate the presence of a respiratory infection, which is treatable with antibiotics. Less often, a lack of vitamin A in your turtle’s diet will result in a condition known as hypovitaminosis A. With a properly varied diet, this should not be a problem.
Shell rot is caused by infection of your turtle’s shell by both fungal and bacterial organisms. It can result from scratches to the shell, such as from sharp rocks, or due to improper husbandry conditions that have weakened your turtle’s immune system. Lack of a heat source or clean water can put your turtle at risk for this disease.
Shell infection can spread throughout a turtle’s body, so it’s important to address it quickly. Shell rot most often appears as a light spot on your turtle’s shell.
If your turtle’s shell becomes infected, see your vet. Your veterinarian may recommend daily treatment with a broad spectrum topical antiseptic, such as povidone iodine.
In severe cases, the shell may break off in pieces and give off a foul smell. Depending on the severity of the infection, your vet may recommend a routine of lightly scrubbing the infected area and applying an antiseptic.
If your turtle cracks its shell, you can temporarily rinse the shell with saline and apply povidone iodine. Next, cover the treated area with sterile gauze, and consult your veterinarian.
Injuries that go untreated can result in abscesses that are filled with a semisolid discharged called caseous. Such injuries can occur anywhere on your turtle’s body. If you find one that does not go away within several days, you may want to see a vet.
If your turtle has a runny nose, watery eyes, decreased appetite, or has become inactive, it might have a respiratory infection, such as pneumonia.
Sick turtles may appear to swim lopsided because their normal sense of balance has been thrown off by the congestion. First double-check the temperature of the water in your tank, then talk to your vet. Your vet may recommend X-rays, antibiotics, and keeping the water in your tank at a higher temperature.
To breed snappers, you’ll need to bring together a healthy and sexually mature pair of male and female snappers. Snappers mature somewhere between 11 and 16 years of age.
Since adult snappers will likely be kept outdoors, the snapper will be stimulated by the changing season to be ready for mating. Keep the male and female together for a couple of months to give them ample opportunity to mate.
In captivity, they mate between February and October and produce a clutch of 10 to 50 eggs about two months after mating. The eggs are incubated by placing them on top of moistened vermiculite at 77 to 86 °F. You can help to determine the sex of the offspring by incubating the eggs at different temperatures.
Females result from temperatures between 84°F and 86° F, whereas males result from temperatures between 77°F and 81° F. Spray the vermiculite with water periodically to keep it moist until they hatch. You can tell if the eggs are fertile if you notice a clear subgerminal space or if a chalky white spot is on the eggshell.
If You Can No Longer Care for Your Snapper
Alligator snapping turtles can live for many decades in captivity. The amount of care involved in raising a 150 lb. turtle, as well as the expense of creating and maintaining a pond, are reasons why many snapper owners decide that they can longer care for their turtle.
Should you find yourself in this position, you have a few options. First, do not release your pet into the local pond. In many places, it is illegal to do so, and your snapper could do lasting damage to the pond ecosystem.
Instead, you should take on the responsibility of finding your pet snapper a home. After all, it could be as simple as placing a few phone calls. First check with the breeder or dealer that you bought it from. They might take it back. (One of the online breeders even offers to replace your adult snapper with a new hatchling.)
Contact your local herpetological or turtle societies and find out if they’ll take your turtle. You can also place adoption ads with your vet. Check with your local humane society as well.
If they can’t take your pet, they might refer you to someone who will. Finally, check with family and friends, and have a little patience with the process.
Your turtle requires special care that not many people will be able to provide. In all cases, carefully screen any potential adopter, making certain that they fully understand the responsibilities involved in caring for this unusual pet.
The Bottom Line
Alligator snapping turtles don’t exactly look like something you’d imagine a turtle to look like. Their pointy shell and head give them an interesting, dangerous look, but they’re adorable pets to have and can be a great addition to your home.
However, there are a lot of things you need to consider before you make a commitment like this. Since these turtles can live for a long time, you need to ensure that you’re ready to keep them for a major portion of your life.
They can also grow to big sizes, which means that you’ll have to arrange for them to grow up comfortably in an environment that suits these cold blooded animals.
There will also be some diseases and ailments that you need to look out for and care for accordingly. However, besides all these factors, owning and caring for an alligator snapping turtle is a wholesome and fulfilling experience that you’d definitely enjoy.
In this article, we’ve outlined some alligator snapping turtle facts and provided a helpful guide on everything you should know and expect before you decide to own one of these animals for yourself. We hope that this article has helped you understand these turtles better.
We also have a large number of informational articles on our website that talk about tortoises and turtles and everything you need to know about them. Be sure to check them out before you go!
Ernst et al. Turtles of the United States and Canada Reed. Neptune City: Smithsonian Institution, 1994.
Wilke, Hartmut. Turtles: everything about selection, care, nutrition and behavior. Translation: 2010.