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How To Identify A Snapping Turtle

If you’re wondering how to identify a snapping turtle, the first step is going to be determining its genus. While that sounds complicated, it’s actually pretty easy, all snapping turtles will look like either the common snapping turtle or the alligator snapping turtle.

Chelydra is the common snapping turtle’s genus, while Macrochelys refers to turtles that look like the alligator snapping turtle. The two families are distinctive enough that once you know the differences, they’re really quite easy to spot.

Within the genus Chelydra, there are three turtles – the common snapper, the South American snapper, and the Central American snapper. These turtles very closely resemble each other and were once considered to be the same species.

Within the genus Macrochelys, there are two turtles – the alligator snapper and the Suwannee snapper. These turtles closely resemble each other and were once considered to be the same species.

Now that you know the first step, let’s talk about what you need to look for, the various types of snappers from the Chelydra and Macrochelys genus, and by the time we’re done you’ll have a great foundation to draw on that can help you identify these turtles fairly quickly!

How to identify a snapping turtle – Snapping turtle features

A snapping turtle taking a rare walk on land
A snapping turtle taking a rare walk on land

Starting off, all snapping turtles look like they’d be at home in a Jurassic Park movie. Their look is quite comparable to that of plated dinosaurs such as the Ankylosaurus and when they are younger, their shells can even have a rough look to them that we’ll get into shortly.

Also, keep in mind that all Chelydra snapping turtles will look a lot like the common snapping turtle, while all Macrochelys snappers will look like the alligator snapping turtle – so learning the basics of the common and alligator snapper is going to be key to identifying ALL snapping turtles.

With that said, the snapping turtle also isn’t one of those turtles that can hide in its shell and it even looks like they got a shell that was one size too small. While they are too large to use their shells as shelter, it hardly seems like they would need to with their large, snapping jaws!

Speaking of the snapping turtle’s shell, that’s the first thing you’ll want to get a closer look at (from a safe distance, of course!).

Inspect The Carapace

The carapace of the snapper is olive, tan, brown, or even black. On top of it you’ll see three ridges that run down the turtle’s back, which will be more pronounced on alligator snapping turtles — enough so to make them look ‘spiky’.

With Common snappers, the ridges are still rough, but a lot less fierce-looking, and as the turtle gets older, they will even start to look more compacted as they wear down over time. As such, mature common snappers will have progressively smoother carapaces.

The alligator snapping turtle, however, will keep those pronounced ridges well into adulthood, so that they always have a prehistoric charm that makes them the easiest snappers to identify at a glance!

Inspect The Plastron

Snappers have tiny plastrons. The plastron is the lower shell which protects the underside of the turtle. Most turtles have prominent, larger plastron that protects them from harm, but the snapping turtle has a tiny one that barely covers their underside.

The snapping turtle doesn’t seem to need them, as adult specimens are naturally vicious to the point that they have hardly any predators at all to worry about, except for the occasional river otter, coyote, or bear that happens to find them.

The tiny plastron of the snapping turtle is yellowish and some individuals may have dark markings.

Inspect The Skin

The skin of the snapping turtle is distinctive, as it is quite rough-looking with lots of tubercles. Tubercles are raised bumps on the turtle’s skin and on snappers, they are most prominent on the chin and neck area.

The skin itself is yellowish, olive, tan, brown, grey, or black. Their overall coloration is typically dark, as the skin can be a combination of many of these colors. The underside will be lighter, however, than the rest of the body.

Inspect The Head

Snapping turtle windpipe
See that hole behind the tongue? That’s this common snapper’s windpipe!

They also have large heads and the alligator snapper, in particular, has a huge one. This large head gives the alligator snapper one of its common names – the loggerhead snapping turtle.

You’ll also notice that the upper beak is hooked on Chelydra snappers, while both the upper and lower are hooked for Macrochelys.

Inspect Inside The Mouth

If you are at a safe distance but the turtle sees you, then it might well open wide and you can get a view of the inside of its mouth. If so, there is a very visible windpipe in the mouth which is easy to spot, and you can also get a glimpse of the turtle’s tongue.

Alligator snappers will also have a tongue that looks rather like a worm that it uses to lure fish inside, while common snappers will have flatter tongues.

Inspect The Jaws

The upper jaw of the common snapping turtle is usually hooked, but the lower jaw is not. With the alligator snapping turtle, however, both the lower and the upper jaws are hooked. These jaws are cream or yellowish in color with dark markings and there is a pair of barbels on the chin.

Inspect The Eyes

The eyes are tiny and beady, and you can easily see them from above. There are black spots on the eyes which resemble crosses in most individuals.

Inspect The Neck

Among the common snappers, the neck is prominent, as it is very long and thick. Before you ask, YES, that neck can reach far back and if you touch the carapace of the turtle, it can probably reach far enough to bite you.

That’s because the neck length of the common snapper is over half the length of the carapace, so its jaws can reach as far as half the length of its upper shell!

The alligator snapping turtle doesn’t have that kind of reach with its much shorter neck, so it is unable to reach very far back in response to attempts to handle it.

If you need to help a common snapper across the road, you’d best consider that long neck or you could get a nasty bite for your troubles. Never try to pick it up from the sides — it can and will bite you — and you could lose a finger if you’re unlucky!

Instead, if you absolutely must pick it up, grip the back of the carapace (upper shell) right above each of the hind legs, and pick it up in the same way you would pick up a tray of food with both hands.

Inspect The Legs

The legs of snapping turtles are heavily scaled, large, and powerful, and their feet will be webbed.

Inspect The Tail

Common-Snapping-Turtle-Tail
Snapping turtles have long, spiky tails

The tail is long, usually as long or almost as long as the carapace, and in rare cases, a little bit longer. On the tail, you will also see three rows of scales, with the center row being the most pronounced.

Chelydra and Macrochelys Snapping turtles

We mentioned that all Chelydras have a very close resemblance to common snapping turtles, while all Macrochelys snappers look like alligator snappers. Don’t worry – there are only 5 types, 3 of which are Chelydra and 2 which are Macrochelys.

Since you know what to look for in common and alligator snappers, the region where the turtle is located is going to be the easiest way to determine the specific type.

Let’s take a look at all 5 types of snapping turtles in each respective genus and then we’ll go into the differences between male and female snappers!

Common Snappers (Chelydra)

The common snapper has a long neck and you’ll also notice that its eyes are inclined towards the top of the head. Finally, it has no supramarginal scutes — which are ridgy bone plates on the side of the carapace, located between the posterior pleurals and the marginals.

You’ll see those on Macrochelys snappers (like the alligator snapper), but never on Chelydra snapping turtles. The common snapper also has a flattened tongue, rather than the wormlike appendage found in the mouth of the alligator turtle.

Description of the Common Snapping Turtle

  • Binomial Nomenclature: Chelydra Serpentina
  • Mass: 8.8 to 35.2 lb (4 to 16 kg)
  • Carapace Length: 10 to 18.5 inches (25 to 47 cm)

Native Geographic Range: Most of the United States (Delaware, Connecticut, Colorado, New Jersey, New York, New Hampshire, Nebraska, Montana, Missouri, Mississippi, Minnesota, Michigan, Massachusetts, Maryland, Maine, Arkansas, Alabama, District of Columbia, Wyoming, Wisconsin, West Virginia, Virginia, Vermont, Texas, New Mexico, Tennessee, South Dakota, South Carolina, Rhode Island, Pennsylvania, Oklahoma, Ohio, North Dakota, North Carolina, Louisiana, Kentucky, Kansas, Iowa, Indiana, Illinois, Georgia, and Florida) & Canada (Saskatchewan, Quebec, Ontario, Nova Scotia, New Brunswick, and Manitoba)

Introduced to: Oregon, Nevada, California, & Arizona in the United States, Taiwan, Japan, China

A juvenile snapping turtle finds a tasty brown water snake
A juvenile comon snapping turtle just found itself a wriggly snack!

The common snapper (C. Serpentina) is the type of snapping turtle that you are most likely to see in the United States. Still, as it has a ridgy back when it’s young, this species is commonly confused with alligator snapping turtles in ranges where they overlap – at least until you can get a closer look!

Outside of North America, however, the location of the snapping turtle can help you to quickly identify them, as their ranges are very specific.

The snapping turtle is a fairly massive turtle, generally weighing anywhere between 9 to 35 lb. Some individuals, such as a 90+ year old snapper named ‘Big Snap Daddy’ even reach weights of up to 90 pounds!

That is the exception, rather than the norm, so it’s safe to expect that any common snappers you come across will fall within the 9 to 35-pound range.

In addition, the carapace (upper shell) will typically measure between 10 to 18.5 inches.

Common snapping turtles also have very long necks — over half the length of the carapace. With that kind of reach, the snapper’s jaws can reach as far as half the length of the upper shell. You’ll also notice distinctive tubercles on the neck and legs of this reptile.

The carapace of C. Serpentina has three distinct rows of scutes that run down its back, which are prominent when they are young but will eventually disappear with age. The carapace is olive, tan, brown, black, or a combination of these colors.

The common snapper also has a long tail, which can be almost as long as the carapace or even loner in a few, rare cases. These long tails also look positively prehistoric with their saw-toothed keels.

The plastron of the snapping turtle is tiny and barely covers the underside, and will be yellowish in color – sometimes with markings present, but not always.

The skin of the turtle is usually a combination of yellow, olive, tan, brown, grey, or black.

Common snapping turtles are endemic to most of North America. Their range starts from Nova Scotia (in Canada) to the Great Lakes, and then southwards to the Gulf Coast from the Nueces River in Texas to Florida.

The species have been introduced to the United Kingdom, Taiwan, the Netherlands, Japan, and California in the US.

Animal diversity has a great page on Common Snapping turtles that you can check out later if you would like to learn more after you’re done here!

Description of the Central American Snapping Turtle

  • Binomial Nomenclature: Chelydra Rossignonii
  • Carapace Length: 14.6 inches (37 cm)
  • Mass: 26.5 lb (12 kg)
  • Geographic Range: Veracruz (Mexico), Belize, Guatemala, Honduras.
Central American Snapping Turtle (Chelydra rossignonii) roaming in the pebbled dirt in Gracias a Dios, Honduras
A Central American Snapping Turtle (Chelydra rossignonii) spotted in Gracias a Dios, Honduras. – Source

The Central American snapper is similar in appearance to the common snapping turtle. Sadly, there is very little information available on the Central American snapper, as it was previously reported as Chelydra serpentina (the binomial name of the common snapper).

As the Central American snapper was until recently considered to be a subspecies of Chelydra serpentina, many textbooks and sources still list the Central American snapper as a subspecies of Chelydra serpentina with a classification – Chelydra serpentina rossignoni.

The Central American snapper is endemic to Veracruz (Mexico), Belize, Guatemala, and Honduras and you can identify them by this alone — the common snapper isn’t found in any of these places!

The carapace length of the Central American snapper averages 14.6 inches and the mass will be around 26.5 pounds.

The carapace of the Central American snapper, just like the common snapper, has three distinct rows of scutes that run down its back. These scutes are prominent when they are young but disappear with age and the carapace will be colored olive, tan, brown, black, or a combination of these colors.

Finally, the tail is long, almost as long as the carapace, or even longer, the plastron will be yellow and tiny, barely covering the underside, and this turtle will have dark-colored skin.

Description of the South American Snapping Turtle

  • Binomial Nomenclature: Chelydra Acutirostris
  • Geographic Range: Costa Rica, Nicaragua, Honduras, Ecuador, Colombia, and Panama.
South American Snapping Turtle (Chelydra acutirostris)
Image of a Central American snapper walking on a rail, courtesy of mercedestrujillo at inaturalist.org

The South American snapper is also similar in appearance to the common snapping turtle and like the Central American Snapper, until recently it was mistakenly identified as a subspecies of Chelydra serpentina (aka the Common snapping turtle).

The South American snapper is endemic to northern Honduras, through east Nicaragua, Costa Rica, and Panama, to Colombia, Ecuador, and the Gulf of Guayaquil. This makes them easy to identify, as common snapping turtles are not found in any of these locations.

The carapace of the South American snapper, like all snappers, has three distinct rows of scutes that run down its back. These scutes are prominent when they are young, but wear down and smooth out with age. The carapace coloration is olive, tan, brown, black, or a combination of these colors.

The tail is almost as long or longer than the carapace, and the plastron will be yellow and almost comically tiny – barely covering the turtle’s underside.

Alligator Snappers (Macrochelys)

Now that we’ve covered all of the Chelydra snappers, it’s time to look at the Macrochelys and the foremost of these is the alligator snapper. Starting off, you’ll notice that the alligator snapper has a much shorter neck than Chelydra snapping turtles.

It also has eyes that are on the side of the head, and if you look on the sides of the shell, there are bony plates called supramarginal scutes that stick out on the carapace and are easy to spot if you’re looking for them.

In the mouth of the alligator snapper is a wormlike appendage, which the turtle uses as a lure to attract prey. When fish or other animals are close enough, the snapping turtle swiftly ambushes and kills them.

This wormlike tongue is pink and small and wiggles around just like a worm would! This is so effective, that fish usually just swim right into the mouth of the turtle where they are swallowed whole or snapped in half by the alligator snapper’s hooked beak.

Description of the Alligator Snapping Turtle

  • Binomial Nomenclature: Macrochelys Temminckii
  • Mass: 154 to 176 lb (70 to 80 kg)
  • Carapace Length: 31.1 to 39.8 inches (79 to 101 cm)
  • Conservation Status: Vulnerable  on IUCN Red List and NatureServe Status
  • Geographic Range: Arkansas, Alabama, Florida, Georgia, Louisiana, Mississippi, Tennessee, Missouri, Oklahoma, Texas, Illinois, Kentucky, Indiana, and Iowa
Alligator snapping turtle in a small pond
Alligator snapping turtles have a unique look that you’ll never forget!

The alligator snapper is the second most common snapping turtle and despite their fierce appearance (or perhaps because of it), they are often kept as pets around the world.

The alligator snapping turtle, as the name suggests, is crocodilian in appearance when compared to other snapping turtles. The carapace has the standard three rows of scutes like other snapping turtles, but on the alligator snapper, they are spiky!

This gives the turtle the look of a dinosaur known as the Ankylosaurus and once you’ve seen one, you can pretty much identify them the instant that you see them.

Like all snappers, the plastron is tiny and barely covers the turtle’s underside.

Unlike Chelydra snappers, the neck of this turtle is very short, and it is also covered in tubercles, as are the neck and limbs.

This species is massive and considered to be the largest freshwater turtle in North America and one of the largest freshwater turtles in the world. This massive size should aid in identifying the turtle, although with those spiky shells, you probably won’t even need to factor that in.

These turtles can weigh as much as 249 pounds, although most will weigh between 154 to 176. The carapace is also quite massive, with a length range of  31.1 to 39.8 inches.

Alligator snapping turtles are endemic to the southeastern United States, with most of the wild population limited to the Mississippi River and Mobile River systems.

Outside of this region, they may be found in Texas, Louisiana Florida, Alabama, and Mississippi. Its range also extends northward to Indiana, Kansas, southeastern Iowa, Illinois, and southern Indiana.

Description of the Suwannee Alligator Snapping Turtle

  • Binomial Nomenclature: Macrochelys Temminckii  
  • Conservation Status: G2 (Imperiled) on NatureServe Status
  • Geographic Range: Florida, Georgia

The Suwannee alligator snapping turtle, also known simply as the Suwannee snapping turtle or the Suwanneee snapper, is the least common snapping turtle out there. That’s because the geographic range of this species is tiny, limited to the Suwannee River system which gives the species its common name.

The Suwannee alligator snapping turtle is similar in appearance to the alligator snapping turtle, but due to its limited geographic range, you aren’t likely to ever come across one.

The Suwannee snapper is found within the Suwannee River system — and nowhere else!

When identifying the Suwannee alligator snapping turtle, you should use the physical characteristics of the alligator snapping turtle, but the region really tells you all that you need to know.

If it is found within the Suwannee River systems, including all other waterbodies considered as part of the drainage system, then you are looking at a Suwannee alligator snapping turtle!

Curious about how box turtles and snapping turtles compare? Check out this article after you’re done here and we’ll tell you all about it!

Differences Between Male And Female Snappers

With some species of turtle, if they are mature then you can determine their gender just by looking at their size. Unfortunately, with male and female snappers, this simply won’t work – they are fairly close in size. Let’s look at some other differences that can help you determine the gender of the turtle.

The Tail

Males have longer and thicker tails, while the females have shorter and thinner ones. You’ll need to see a few snappers before you can use this information, but once you’ve started noticing the difference in their tails, it’s much easier to notice at a glance.

The Cloaca Positioning

The cloaca is the opening at the end of the digestive tract, used for excrement and to house the turtle’s genitals. The snapping turtle can also respire through this vent, increasing the amount of time that they can stay underwater.

The distance between the edge of the shell and the cloaca (vent) can help you determine a snapper’s gender. For males, it will be further down the tail, while the female’s cloaca will be very close to the carapace.

This placement is part of Nature’s design, as it allows the male turtle to mount the female more easily during mating.

The Plastron

In males, the plastron is smaller and the bridges that connect the carapace to the plastron are narrower. By contrast, the female’s plastron is larger and the bridges between the plastron and the carapace are wider.

This is another of Nature’s designs. The males have smaller plastrons and narrower ridges because these make it easier for them to hold onto the female’s carapace when mating.

Frequently Asked Questions

How do you know if it’s a snapping turtle or a regular turtle?

The first telltale signs that you are looking at a snapper are the size, the shell, and the skin. Snapping turtles are generally larger than other turtles, and their shells will have 3 pronounced ridges, which will be spiky with alligator snappers and somewhat smoother with adult common snapping turtles.

Finally, the skin is rough looking and has tubercles, which are raised bumps on the skin, and these will be most prominent on the chin and neck area.

How big is a snapping turtle?

Common snappers weigh  8.8 to 35.2 lb (4 to 16 kg) and measure 10 to 18.5 inches (25 to 47 cm) in carapace length. Alligator snappers weigh  154 to 176 lb (70 to 80 kg) and measure 31.1 to 39.8 inches (79 to 101 cm) in carapace length.

Why is it called snapping turtle?

Snapping turtles have strong jaws and aggressive natures, so when someone comes too close to the turtle, it is very likely to attempt to bite them with a quick, sharp snapping sound.

They’re not mean-natured – they just don’t mess around when they feel that their safety is being threatened.

Conclusion

Identifying the snapping turtle is a piece of cake — once you know what to look for. Starting off, they are the largest freshwater turtles in North America, and while they typically reach a weight of around 25 pounds, older snappers may reach weights of 90 lbs or more.

Snappers are also well armored with a rugged-looking carapace, with 3 rows of scutes that you can’t miss once you’ve seen them in person. Their skin also looks tough, with tubercles being present on the neck and limbs.

They have strong legs, with webbed feet, but the biggest identifier might just be their aggressive natures. The snapping turtle is known to ‘snap’ at people that approach it, as their shells are too tight to retreat inside of.

Using all of these identifiers, the next time that you see a snapping turtle, you should be able to identify it in seconds – it’s all a matter of knowing exactly what to look for!

Now that you’re done here, you can learn more about the 5 types of snapping turtles here if you like in our informative guide!

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