Skip to Content

Do Snapping Turtles Have Teeth?

While they are capable of a lacerating bite with enough force to sever fingers, does a snapping turtle have teeth? As it turns out, they don’t need them at all! Instead, they have beaks and they use them to hunt, bite, or snip chunks of food, before proceeding to swallow them whole!

They also use their beaks for defense, as they are sharp and powerful enough to decapitate smaller turtles, and they can use them to pull small mammals and birds into the water. Once there, they can drown their prey and devour them at their leisure.

Today we’ll talk a little about the snapping turtle’s beak, the turtle’s diet, defensive measures, and different types of snapping turtles found worldwide. By the time we’re done, you’ll know a lot of fun facts about snappers and quite a lot more about their bites!

Does a snapping turtle have teeth? Introducing the Snapping Turtle’s Beak!

Snapping turtle beak
Efficient and no trips to the dentist – that doesn’t sound bad at all!

The snapping turtle has a strong bony beak that lacks teeth, which is made up of its upper and lower mandibles. These are the ‘beaks’ or the turtle’s ‘jaws’, if you may. They are covered in hard keratin and have the texture and feel of a horn.

This sharp beak serves the turtle well, allowing it to easily cut and tear prey, and as they have large heads and large jaws they can bite harder than most other turtles. One interesting snapping turtle innovation is found in the alligator snapping turtle.

While the common snapping turtle has a flat, fleshy tongue, the alligator snapping turtle has a special one that acts like bait. Inside their mouths is a fleshy, wormlike protrusion that the turtle uses to lure prey into its mouth.

Once the prey ‘is in the mouth of the turtle, it quickly closes its mouth and traps them. It’s an effective method that these ambush hunters often execute from deep inside the mud at the bottom of ponds.

Snapping Turtle’s Diet – Alligator and Common snapping turtles

Alligator snappers are predators and scavengers, who are most active at night when they move about and hunt. During the day, they are found at the bottom of their aquatic habitats with their jaws open. This displays the wormlike protrusion mentioned earlier, luring small animals right into the turtle’s mouth.

The alligator snapping turtle then uses its sharp jaws to snap the prey into two, impale it for drowning, or simply swallow it whole. Animals the alligator snapper is known to feed on include insects, crayfish, clams, worms, snails, snakes, frogs, mollusks, water birds, and even other turtles.

They are also known to feed on small and medium-sized mammals such as nutria, mice, muskrats, squirrels, armadillos, raccoons, and opossums – basically anything small enough that makes the mistake of coming to close to the water or attempting to swim across the turtle’s habitat.

The alligator snapper is known to even hunt and eat American alligators if they’re small enough, so these turtles really are as fierce as they look, but they don’t dine exclusively on meat. Alligator snapping turtles also feed on plants, but they are predominantly carnivorous.

Similar to alligator snappers, the common snapping turtle is also a predator as well as a scavenger. As scavengers, they are an important part of the ecosystem, as they clean up their aquatic habitats. As predators, they are ambush hunters just like the alligator snapper — just without the cool, wormy tongue.

They prey on amphibians such as frogs, fish, invertebrates, reptiles such as turtles and snakes, birds, and small mammals. They are also known to hunt waterfowl and get their vitamins from also consuming large amounts of vegetation.

Ever wonder what an alligator snapping turtle’s tank might be like? Find out in our care guide when you’ve got a moment – it’s quite an interesting read!

The Snapping Turtle’s Defense

An Alligator snapping turtle takes an aggressive stance
You wouldn’t think it, but the alligator snapper isn’t the snapping turtle that bites the hardest.

When feeling threatened, the snapping turtle is quick to bite, and their bites are a real doozy! The alligator snapping turtle has a bite force of about 158 Newtons but even though it looks like the strongest turtle, it’s not. The common snapping turtle can bite with a force of 208 Newtons.

The term ‘Newtons’ sounds a little dry, however, so from more practical terms, keep in mind that just 100 Newtons is the equivalent of 22.5 pounds of force, delivered by a razor-sharp beak. So, an alligator snapper can bite with about 33 pounds of pressure, but a common snapper delivers 45!

We were really betting on the fierce alligator snapping turtle to bite with the most force, but It just goes to show you that you can’t judge a book by its cover, after all!

To find out more about how alligator and common snapping turtles compare, check out our article on this subject when you’re done here!

About Snapping Turtles

Snapping turtles are species that belong to the family Chelydridae. These include the common snapping turtle, the alligator snapping turtle, the Suwanee snapping turtle, and the South American and the Central American snapping turtle.

The two that are well-known are the common and alligator snapping turtle and both are endemic to North America, but let’s take a look at all 5 species to familiarize you with them so that you’ll have a better idea of what snapping turtles are like around the world.

Common Snapping Turtle

  • Scientific Name: Chelydra Serpentina
  • Weight/Mass: 8.8 to 35.2 lb (4 to 16 kilograms)
  • Carapace Length: 10 to 18.5 inches (25 to 47 cm)
  • Lifespan:  11 to 45 years
  • Conservation Status: G5 (Secure) on NatureServe,  Vulnerable (IUCN Red List)
A Common Snapping Turtle taking a little time out of the water
The ridges on the snapping turtle’s back slowly smooth out over time.

The common snapping turtle is the most common snapping turtle around, and when you hear someone saying ‘snapping turtle’, this is usually the one that they mean.

This turtle has a carapace that ranges in color from dark brown to tan (and sometimes black), along with yellowish limbs, and a tiny plastron (lower shell) that barely covers those limbs.

It also has tubercles on its neck and exposed limbs, along with a smooth shell for older individuals, but a quite rough and ridged one in younger individuals.

Another characteristic of the common snapping turtle is its long neck, which is notable enough that it’s referenced in the specific name – Serpentina. This neck can easily reach back to bite you, as it grows to be up to 19 inches long in adults.

Keep this in mind if you ever plan on trying to pick one up — if you don’t know what you are doing, you might lose a finger! Standard First Aid Courses of Canada has some free information on snapping turtle bites that you can find here.

The common snapper is quite large with an average carapace of length 11 inches. The carapace range among normal individuals is 10 to 18.5 inches, but a few huge individuals can have upper shells up to 20 inches long. The tiny plastron (lower shell), on the other hand, is about 9 inches in length.

The weight of this snapper is 9  to 35 lb. It is a big turtle. Males are bigger than females with males weighing up to 75 lb.

Central American Snapping Turtle

  • Scientific Name: Chelydra Rossignonii
  • Carapace Length: 14.6 inches (37 cm)
  • Mass: 26.5 lb (12 kg)
  • Conservation Status: Vulnerable  (IUCN Red List)
Central American Snapping Turtle (Chelydra serpentina rossignonii) walking in a forest in Gracias a Dios, Honduras
A Central American Snapping Turtle (Chelydra serpentina rossignonii) walking in a forest in Gracias a Dios, Honduras. – Source

The Central American snapper is similar in appearance and size to the common snapping turtle and while it was once mistaken as the same species, this is no longer the case.

The Central American snapper, as the name suggests, is indeed endemic to Central America. You can find them in Mexico, Honduras, Guatemala, and Belize.

Size-wise, the Central American snapper is fairly close the common snapper, with an adult female being approximately 26.5 lbs with a carapace length of 14.6 inches. This data is obtained from a single female.

Their coloration varies from gray to black and similar to other snapping turtles, they have tubercles on their neck and limbs.

South American Snapping Turtle 

Scientific Name: Chelydra Acutirostris

South American Snapping Turtle (Chelydra acutirostris)
Image courtesy of mercedestrujillo at inaturalist.org

The South American snapping turtle is another snapper that looks very similar to the common snapper, both in general appearance, size, and coloration. 

One difference is in the carapace, which is lighter than that of the Central American snapper. The limbs, neck, and head are dark in color. Additionally, it has the same characteristics that you can expect to see in a snapping turtle, such as tubercles on the neck and limbs.

Like the common snapping turtle, the shell is smooth in older individuals, but rather angular and rough in younger individuals., with visible ridges displaying on the upper shell or carapace. 

There is little data on the weight and length of this turtle. However, available data suggests that its size is similar to that of the common and Central American snapping turtles as they both are part of the genus Chelydra.

Alligator Snapping Turtle

  • Scientific NameMacrochelys temminckii
  • Carapace Length: 31.1 to 39.8 inches (79 to 101 cm)
  • Weight/Mass: 154.2 to 176.2 pounds (70 to 80 kg)
  • Lifespan: 11 to 70 years
  • Conservation Status: G3 Vulnerable (NatureServe Status), Vulnerable (IUCN Red List)
Aggressive turtles
Alligator snapping turtles don’t like to be bothered and it shows!

The alligator snapping turtle is the second most common snapping turtle. Much more rugged-looking that the common snapper, the alligator snapping turtle has a spiky shell, with three distinctive rows of spiky ridges that go down the back of the carapace.

The head is also has a dangerous look to it — large with a hooked beak. This beak is capable of delivering painful and harmful bites.

The alligator snapping turtle is the largest of the bunch and is considered to be one of the largest freshwater turtles in the world. It can reach a weight of  298 lbs (135 kg), as recorded at the Brookfield Zoo in Chicago. The individual recorded is the largest currently on record.

Most aren’t so big, however, with the average alligator snapping turtle reaching weights of up to 176 lbs, with a carapace length of up to 31.8 inches (80.8 cm).

Suwannee Snapping Turtle

  • Scientific Name: Macrochelys Suwanniensis
  • Conservation Status: G2 (Imperiled) on  NatureServe Status
Suwannee Snapper (Macrochelys suwanniensis) by Jake Scott
Image courtesy of jakescott and inaturalist.org

This turtle is similar in appearance to the alligator snapping turtle but unfortunately, there is little information on the species at this time. It can be found in the Suwannee River Basin in Georgia and Florida and gets its common name from its geographic range.

Frequently Asked Questions

Are snapping turtle bites poisonous?

No, snapping turtle bites are not poisonous, and there are no turtle species that possess venom or poison glands.

That said, snapping turtles can sometimes live in brackish waters and as they are capable of delivering a nasty bite, you’ll definitely want to clean the wound thoroughly if you are bitten.

Is a snapping turtle ‘egg tooth’ really a tooth?

No, the egg tooth of a hatchling snapping turtle is not a real tooth. Also referred to as a ‘caruncle’, it is a keratin formation that helps the baby turtle to get out of its egg. It’s made of the same material as your fingernails and disappears within a few days of the turtle safely leaving its shell.

Which turtles DO have teeth?

That’s a trick question because there are NO turtles in the world that actually have teeth. Instead of teeth, turtles have powerful beaks just like birds do.

While they’re not so good for chewing, turtles tend to swallow large chunks or even their entire prey whole, and the beak also allows them to grab prey and drown it for more leisurely consumption.

Conclusion

Does a snapping turtle have teeth? Definitely not, but they do have sharp and efficient beaks. These beaks are powerful, as well, and capable of amputating the heads of smaller turtles which they can then proceed to feed on and to swallow.

They can also use their beaks for more specialized hunting, dragging birds and other prey underwater to drown them for easy consumption. While those beaks definitely don’t have the organized shine of a set of pearly-white chompers, we’d have to say that all in all, they’re doing just fine without them!

If you see a snapping turtle that needs help crossing the road, you’d better know what you’re doing before you try to pick it up. Find out how it’s done in our guide on this subject!

Click to rate this post!
[Total: 0 Average: 0]

Sharing is caring!