There are 5 types of snapping turtles, although only two are well-known and kept as pets. The ones that are often kept as pets are definitely turtles you’ve seen — the alligator snapping turtle and the common snapping turtle (with the common snapping turtle being the more popular of the two).
The remaining and lesser-known 3 species of snapping turtles are the Central American snapping turtle, the South American snapping turtle, and the Suwannee snapping turtle.
Known for their rough-looking appearance and powerful bites, Snapping turtles are also quite large compared to other freshwater turtles. Some, such as the alligator snapping turtle can weigh up to 176.2 pounds (80 kg)!
Today we’ll take a closer look at each of these snapping turtles so that by the time we’re done you’ll know a little about each of the 5 species. If you’re ready, then let’s take a look at the 5 types of Snapping turtles!
Table of Contents
Alligator Snapping Turtle
- Family: Chelydridae
- 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)
- Lifespan: 11 to 45 years in the wild
- Conservation Status: Vulnerable on IUCN Red List and NatureServe Status
The Alligator snapping turtle gets its name from its crocodilian-like appearance. It has rough-looking skin and a spiky shell, as well as three prominent ridges on the upper shell which distinctly stand out. Other snapping turtles have relatively smooth carapaces compared to this snapper.
The alligator snapping turtle is a massive turtle and is considered to be the largest freshwater turtle in the world, as well as the largest turtle in North America. Its head is large and heavy, and its skin is thick and rough.
The three ridges on the carapace of this turtle make it look like a modern equivalent of the plated dinosaur known as the Ankylosaurus, and also help to distinguish it from other snapping turtles.
The upper shell is dark in color and this color ranges from black to brown, gray, and olive green. Usually, if you see one in the wild, the carapace will be covered with algae – a little side-effect from living in the bottom of the rivers and ponds they like to frequent.
The weight of the alligator snapping turtle ranges from 154 to 176 lb (70 to 80 kg) and the carapace length ranges from 31.1 to 39.8 inches (79 to 101 cm). The largest documented alligator snapping turtle on record weighed 249 lb (113 kg)!
That may not be the limit of their size, however, as a specimen weighing 403 lb (183 kg) was said to have been found in Kansas in 1837. This report is unverified, unfortunately, but we wouldn’t be surprised if it was genuine!
The species is endemic to the southeastern United States and most wild specimens are found in the Moblie River and Mississippi River drainage basin. They are also distributed along the Gulf Coast, from Florida, Alabama, Mississippi, and Louisiana to Texas.
The range also extends northward to southern Indiana, Illinois, southeastern Iowa, and Kansas.
This species prefers to live in slow-moving water and its habitat is quite similar to that of the common snapping turtle. Natural habitats of the alligator snapping turtle include ponds, bayous, swamps, shallow creeks, lakes, and canals associated with rivers, oxbows, rivers, and sloughs.
The species is most often found in waters with soft mud bottoms and it is not unusual to find this hardy species in brackish waters near river mouthes.
Alligator snapping turtles are known to live from 11 to 45 years in the wild, although in captivity, they are known to reach an age of 70 years. The lifespan of adult males is 11 to 45 years with an average lifespan of 26 years, while females tend to live from 15 to 37 years, with an average lifespan of 23 years.
The species is omnivorous. They are known to eat animals such as muskrats, possums, armadillos, raccoons, squirrels, nutria, insects, crayfish, clams, worms, snakes, nails, and frogs. Plants they will dine on include leaves, roots, tubers, bark, stems, wood, grains, seeds, and nuts.
Find out how to care for a pet alligator snapping turtle using our guide.
Suwannee Snapping Turtle
- Family: Chelydridae
- Binomial Nomenclature: Macrochelys Suwanniensis
- Conservation Status: G2 (Imperiled) on NatureServe Status
The Suwannee snapping turtle was previously considered part of the alligator snapping turtle species and while this status has changed, it is safe to say that both species share the same characteristics when it comes to diet as well as habitats.
The Suwannee snapping turtle is named after its geographic range and habitat — the Suwannee River basin. A specimen of the species has been found in the Okefenokee Swamp, but whether or not a small population exists there has not been confirmed at this time.
The Suwannee River runs from Georgia to Florida and is the only place where this species may reliably be found.
Suwanee snappers are listed as G2 (Imperiled) on NatureServe and in Florida they are illegal to trap (or take), as outlined in the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission 2009 rule.
This species is known to be important to the ecological integrity of the Suwannee River system but at this time we simply don’t have enough data on them to provide a comprehensive profile. With a little luck, new studies will help to fill in the gaps on these unique species.
Suwanee snapping turtles are included in the list of species to be protected under the ESA (Endangered Species Act), proposed in 2009.
Common Snapping Turtle
- Family: Chelydridae
- Binomial Nomenclature: Chelydra Serpentina
- Mass: 8.8 to 35.2 lb (4 to 16 kg)
- Male Mass: over 22 lb (10 kg)
- Carapace Length: 10 to 18.5 inches (25 to 47 cm)
- Lifespan: 11 to 45 years in the wild
- Conservation Status: Vulnerable on IUCN Red List
The common snapping turtle is a large freshwater turtle endemic to the Americas — limited specifically to North America. This species has a wide range, from southern Canada all the way to the Gulf Coast (from Florida to Texas). This range also extends from the west to the Rocky Mountains.
The common snapping turtle has a rugged and muscular appearance. The upper shell is ridged in younger turtles but becomes smoother as the turtle ages. The carapace upper shell) is quite large and may reach a length of up to 20 inches (50 cm).
The average carapace length of the species, however, ranges between 10 to 18.5 inches (25 to 47 cm). The average plastron (lower shell) length, according to one study, is around 8.9 inches (22.5 cm).
As with other snapping turtles, males tend to be larger than females. The weight of the species ranges from 8.8 to 35.2 lbs (4 to 16 kg).
Mature males generally reach a weight of over 22 lbs (10 kg). The largest wild specimen recorded weighed 75 lb (34 kg). In captivity, they can end up overweight, as some owners overfeed them. One captive-bred specimen tipped the scales a bit, with a weight of approximately 86 lbs (39 kg)!
The common snapping turtle has tubercles on the neck and limbs. This is similar to other snapping turtles. They also possess a tiny plastron (lower shell) which doesn’t protect very much of their extremities.
As far as coloration, the limbs, neck, and tails of this turtle are yellowish, and the head is dark in color. The carapace, by contrast, is black to dark brown, or sometimes tan. The tail is keeled, with the scales arranged in a saw-toothed formation.
The neck of this species is very long, making them quite capable of biting people who pick them up by the sides of their shells. They also have very sharp claws, although these are not used for attack or defense – they’re for digging and gripping.
They have strong jaws and are capable of delivering dangerous bites, which may leave lacerations or even sever fingers if you don’t know how to pick up a snapping turtle!
In the wild, common snapping turtles are known to live for 30 years, as they are mostly only vulnerable when they are hatchlings. During this time, most fatalities are due to predation and vehicular accidents, when young turtles cross roads in search of new aquatic habitats.
In captivity, they may reach an age of up to 47 years, although the average lifespan of the species in captivity is considered to be around 18 years. There are certainly exceptions — one common snapper named ‘Big Snap Daddy’ just turned 93 last year.
This serves as an inspiration for pet owners and just goes to show that extra care for their diet and tank can really go a long way!
The species is solitary and territorial. Apart from when they are mating, interactions between common snapping turtles are generally aggressive. Aggression isn’t limited to other snapping turtles, either.
They can and sometimes are very aggressive towards humans when they are out of the water. As such you need to be VERY careful around them.
Inside the water, they feel safe and are generally much more docile – unless you are a predator. Common snapping turtles tend to ambush predators, by burying themselves in the mud and waiting for the right moment.
This species is omnivorous and tends to feed on whatever is close. This includes plants, invertebrates, and vertebrates. They feed on amphibians, small mammals, birds, fish, invertebrates, and carrion. They also eat vegetation and finally, they are known to eat other turtles – including other snappers!
Common snappers are an aquatic species and they live in all manners of freshwater habitats, including streams, reservoirs, lakes, swamps, marshes, and ponds. They prefer water bodies with soft bottoms, but will ‘make due’ when they need to.
Preferred habitats also include water bodies with a lot of vegetation or submerged logs and brushes. While they are freshwater turtles, these hardy chelonians are geared to survive, and may sometimes be found in brackish water that other species would naturally avoid.
Common snapping turtles are also known to brumate, which is a reptile equivalent of hibernation.
They do this when temperatures are low as a survival instinct. During this time, they brumate under submerged debris, and logs at the bottom of ponds, lakes, and streams. They will also brumate in muskrat tunnels and under overhanging banks.
The places they choose are generally anoxic sites, which means in this case bodies of water with low or no dissolved oxygen content.
This species likes to nest in soft soils close to water and in open areas. Females nest when they are mature, and this may occur anytime between 9 to 18 years of age. On average, however, they’ll reach maturity between 10 to 12 years.
Females are considered immature when they reach a carapace length of 7.87 to 8.66 inches (20 to 22 cm).
Females usually lay just one clutch of about 25 to 25 eggs. After about 75 to 95 days, hatchlings emerge from the eggs. Hatchlings can range from 1.6 to .8 cm in length although the average length of emerging hatchlings is 2.9 cm.
Males reach maturity at age 4 to 6 years, with a carapace length at this time of 7.08 to 7.48 inches (18 to 19 cm).
The species is often hunted by humans who use it for turtle soup but aside from being on the menu, they are also quite popular as pets. They are not ideal for beginners, as they are expensive to house and require a massive tank or pond.
They are also messy, so large quantities of water in these tanks and ponds have to be filtered continuously, and aside from this they eat a lot and are dangerous to handle.
So, if you are considering a common snapping turtle of your own, then be sure to do your homework first – they’re long-lived and there are a lot of things you’ll need to learn in order to take proper care of them!
Central American Snapping Turtle
- Family: Chelydridae
- Binomial Nomenclature: Chelydra Rossignonii
- Female Carapace Length: 14.6 inches (37 cm)
- Female Mass: 26.5 lb (12 kg)
The Central American snapping turtle is also called the ‘Yucatan snapping turtle’ and the ‘Mexican snapping turtle’. All the common names of this turtle are related to its geographical range. It is found in Yucatan (although this is now disputed), Mexico (in Veracruz), and Central America (across the subregion).
This turtle is closely related to the common snapping turtle and the Central American snapping turtle was once considered to be a separate geomorphic population (or subspecies) of the snapping turtle. It is now considered its own separate species.
Sadly, information on this species is limited. This is because for decades information presented on the Central American snapping turtle was presented as that of the common snapping turtle. As such, further study on this species will be necessary to learn their particular habits and traits.
The geographic range of the species includes Veracruz in Mexico, to southern Belize, and Guatemala to Honduras.
The Central American snapper closely resembles the common snapping turtle and can be easily confused for one. The easiest way to tell them apart is based on their geographical range. As these turtles aren’t kept as pets in North America, there is little to no information on how to keep one as a pet.
However, the care for this turtle should be similar to that of the common snapping turtle.
This turtle is large. Its carapace can be coarse or smooth, with younger turtles having rougher shells like the other snapper species. It is common for them to have algae growing on the shell, as they like to dwell at the bottoms and this growth helps the turtle to blend into its environment.
Sans algae, the carapace itself is black to olive, or sometimes brown. The plastron is tiny, like the related snappers, and is tan, cream, or gray in color.
The skin of this turtle is dark in color and the coloration ranges from gray to black. The Central American snapping turtle has tubercles on the neck and limbs, just like common snappers do.
The Central American snapper, just like other snapping turtles, is aquatic. They inhabit freshwater bodies with soft mud bottoms and an abundance of vegetation and other objects that can keep them well hidden.
They are rarely ever seen in clear waters, preferring the relative safety of dense vegetation and debris within murky waters.
Records present on them in Central America show that they are mostly nocturnal and entirely aquatic. They do not even emerge out of their water body to bask!
In Guatemala, they inhabit slow-moving tributaries that run into large open freshwater bodies, deep large rivers, backwater sloughs, and oxbows.
The species is omnivorous and feeds on animals such as fish, insects, crabs, clams, frogs, shrimp, and prawns. Plants that it feeds on include tree fruits and aquatic plants in their region.
There is little information on the size of the Central American snapping turtle. A female measured in northwestern Honduras weighed 26.5 lb (12 kg) and measured 14.6 inches (37 cm) in carapace length, and they are known to lay a lot of eggs – typically around 20 to 30 eggs per nest.
Like the common snapping turtle, the Central American snapping turtle is often consumed as food. For this reason, the species is protected in Guatemala and Mexico.
There is also a conservation breeding program in Nacajuca in Tabasco (a state in Mexico) and this species is also commercially farmed/bred in Veracruz. This species holds a conservation status of ‘Vulnerable’ on the IUCN Red List.
South American Snapping Turtle
- Family: Chelydridae
- Binomial Nomenclature: Chelydra Acutirostris
‘The images are Copyrighted and courtesy of Ferry Grünewald and Chelydra.org’
There is very little information available on this species, although we do know that they closely resemble the common snapping turtle.
This species occurs in Costa Rica, Nicaragua, Honduras, Ecuador, Colombia, and Panama. The range of the species starts from northern Honduras, through to east Nicaragua, Costa Rica, and Panama, and on to Colombia, Ecuador, and the Gulf of Guayaquil.
The species is also known as the Ecuadorian snapping turtle, as it is also endemic to Ecuador.
South American snappers have a rugged appearance, as their upper shell is noticeably ridged. The carapace is quite large and quite possibly reaches a carapace length of about 20–22 (19–29) cm in females and 18–19 cm in males.
This is the carapace length typical of the common snapping turtle, to give you an idea of how much these species have in common.
These turtles have shells that are dark in color and so are the limbs, tail, neck, and head. Similar to other snapping turtles, the plastron is tiny and barely covers its extremities. The carapace is commonly covered in algae as a side-effect of the muddy waters they enjoy and a camouflage survival trait from Nature.
Although the upper shell is dark in color, it can be said to have a lighter color than that of the Central American snapper.
Frequently Asked Questions
Why is it called snapping turtle?
The snapping turtle is named after its habit of snapping at people who invade its space! Its bites are powerful enough to sever fingers and when they miss, there is often an audible SNAP.
Thankfully, these turtles only snap when threatened and this usually occurs when they are out of water.
How strong is a snapping turtle bite?
The snapping turtle has a bite force of about 209 Newtons. In comparison, humans have a bite force of around 150 Newtons.
209 newtons is a force that is quite capable of producing painful lacerations or even severing fingers, so snapping turtles should only be handled with utmost care!
Has a snapping turtle ever attacked a human?
Several humans have been attacked by snapping turtles and these attacks have come from both pet and wild snapping turtles.
Snapping turtles usually only attack when they feel threatened, so it’s best to simply keep your distance unless you need to help them across the street or get them to a vet.
There have been three documented cases of snapping turtles biting off a human finger, so keep this in mind — it’s generally better to give these turtles their space!
There are five types of snapping turtles — the Central American snapping turtle, the South American snapping turtle, the Suwannee snapping turtle, the alligator snapping turtle, and the common snapping turtle.
The last two mentioned are the most popular snappers kept as pets, with the MOST well-known of all the five being the common snapping turtle. Despite their powerful bites, the common and alligator snapping turtles are relatively simple to keep – provided that you’ve got the space and food budget.
These chelonians require a massive tank or a pond as they are huge, with alligator snapping turtles reaching a weight of up to 176.2 pounds (80 kg), so just be sure to consider this and their impressive lifespans before you take one home.
That’s all the time that we have for today, but we hope that you’ve enjoyed this little exploration of the 5 types of snapping turtles. Until next time, thanks for visiting and we wish you and yours the very best!
Find out what the biggest snapping turtle in the world is in our list of the largest snappers!