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Where Do Alligator Snapping Turtles Live?

It’s the largest freshwater turtle in North America, but where does the alligator snapping turtle live? As it turns out, quite a lot of places! Alligator snapping turtles may be found throughout a fairly extensive range in the southeastern United States, from Iowa to Florida and Texas.

The species likes to hide in the ud in river bottoms, so it can be quite rare to spot one, but your odds are the best in Florida or Texas, where the alligator snapping turtle populations are the highest.

Within their range, they are found in freshwater habitats, although they are hardy and may survive in brackish waters, isolated ponds, and wetlands. Most often, however, you’ll find them in the slower-moving parts of freshwater bodies that drain into the Gulf of Mexico.

If you’re looking to spot a snapping turtle in the wild, then today is your lucky day! In this article, we’ll tell you more about their habits and habitats, their geographic range, nesting habits, and more. Where does the alligator snapping turtle live? Stay with us, and we’ll tell you all about it!

Habitat

Mobile Tensaw River Delta in Alabama
Bottle Creek, part of the Mobile Tensaw River Delta in Alabama is prime Alligator snapper real estate – Image courtesy of WikiCommons

The alligator snapping turtle can be found in freshwater habitats associated with rivers — in particular, the Mobile and Mississippi drainage basins.

They can also be found in shallow tributary creeks that lead to occupied rivers (including fast upland streams), ponds, bayous, and nearby swamps. The species can also be found in brackish waters near river mouths – they’re quite hardy, you see, and geared for survival.

The aquatic habitats these snappers prefer are those with vegetation and mud beds. When found in streams, they generally occur in deep holes, under rock shelters, beneath undercut banks, and inside or underneath logjams.

In Florida, they are known to inhabit freshwater bodies (including creeks and rivers) with sand bottoms.

They are predominantly aquatic and if you spot one on land, it will usually be within 10 feet (approximately 3 meters) of the water – unless it is nesting or the turtle’s habitat has dried out and it needs to find a new home.

In Louisiana, individuals are normally found in dense floating vegetation in buttonbush or cypress habitats and subadults there are especially fond of bald cypress forests.

In Missouri, the turtles prefer habitats with submerged structures (such as vegetation), with deep, warm waters, and a lot of debris to keep them camouflaged.

Nesting Habitats

Shot of Cut Bank Creek in Montana
Shot of Cut Bank Creek in Montana

Snapping turtles like to nest in places such as high, steep river cliffs with almost vertical banks, sandbars, and sand mounds near the river banks. The nesting habitats of the species vary a bit from one individual to another, but those are generally their preferred spots to build a nest.

Some of the nests have been located in areas with high humidity, but you’ll also find them in spots with low humidity, and they seem to be fine with locations that offer lots of shade, partial shade, or even no shade.

The thing to keep in mind is that regardless of where the turtle decides to nest, it will usually be within 39 feet (12 meters) of a freshwater body. There are exceptions, however, as nests have been found up to 26 feet (72 meters) from Lake Lamonia (located in northern Leon County, Florida).

It’s rare, though, and in most cases they’ll be within 39 feet of a freshwater source.

Keeping a captive alligator snapper female? You’d better build a nesting box – find out how it’s done when you’re finished here!

Where does the alligator snapping turtle live? – Geographic Range

Alligator snapping turtles are endemic to the southeastern United States, typically occupying river systems that drain into the Gulf of Mexico.

A large alligator snapping turtle population may be found in Mobile and Mississippi drainage basins, although the entire range includes the Gulf Coast from the Florida panhandle through to eastern Texas.

It also encompasses Alabama, Mississippi, and northward to southern Indiana, Illinois, southeastern Iowa, and southeastern Kansas.

Breaking that down, you can find alligator snappers in western Tennessee, Louisiana, western Kentucky, southern Indiana, western Illinois, southeastern Iowa, Missouri, southeastern Kansas, south to East Texas, and east to the Florida Panhandle.

This species is rare in Kentucky, but you’ll sometimes find them, and they may no longer exist in Iowa and Indiana. Due to this, they hold statuses of  SH (Possibly Extirpated) in Indiana and SU (Unranked) in Iowa.

They are also being reintroduced to some states, in order to help build up their populations. For instance, the species are to be reintroduced in Kansas, as well as Tennessee, Oklahoma, and Illinois.

Threats To The Habitat Of The Alligator Snapping Turtle

Alligator snapping turtle
These turtles are tough because they need to be – Alligator snappers face a LOT of threats.

Alligator snapping turtles face a lot of threats, to both their habitats and the turtles themselves. Threats to the habitat include water pollution, habitat fragmentation, and habitat alteration. Threats to turtles themselves include incidental catches and deliberate harvesting for consumption.

Water erosion and pollution are caused by agricultural activities and can wreak a lot of havoc, degrading the habitat and also altering the food chain when various animals there succumb to environmental changes.

Dams of rivers can separate individuals from one another and this creates a problem of negatively impacting genetic exchanges, but they can also the temperatures of the rivers and this can have a profound impact on cold-blooded turtles.

In Oklahoma, this actually happened, and dammed rivers resulted in a drastic reduction of wild alligator snapping turtle populations in the area.

Another destruction of habitats is caused by dredging river bottoms to maintain shipping channels and again, this was demonstrated in Oklahoma. Wild populations there thinned-out drastically following stream channelization. River channelization has also negatively affected habitats in southern Missouri.

Finally, the draining and conversion of the aquatic habitats to agricultural lands has also destroyed many of the native habitats of the alligator snapper.

Aside from environmental risks, the species is also harvested for food and the pet trade. Although commercial harvesting of the species is illegal in all of Louisiana and Mississippi, it still happens quite often as it is difficult to monitor the native populations.

Incidental capture is another risk and this is when the turtle gets caught in fishing gear such as limblines and trotlines. Turtles may inadvertently swallow hooks and from time to time, they find themselves inside of fish traps. This article from EnviroScience can tell you a little about it, if you would like to learn more.

As these reptiles need to surface and breathe air, getting stuck in a fish trap often results in the turtle drowning.

Human presence can also cause problems with nesting females, who will retreat when bothered by humans, and this increases the chances that predators will gain access to their nests.

Nesting females and hatchlings can be involved in vehicular accidents as they attempt to cross roads to and from the nesting sites but there is at least one perk to being bottom-dwellers in freshwater — they are rarely in danger of being struck by motorboats.

Turtles are in a lot of danger crossing the road, but you need to know the right way to pick up an alligator snapping turtle if you want to help them out. Find out how when you’re done here with our handy guide to picking up snappers!

Alligator snapping turtles are most vulnerable as hatchlings
Alligator snapping turtles are most vulnerable as hatchlings

The numbers across the United States aren’t well documented, but there are possibly over 10,000 alligator snapping turtles living in Texas, at least 500 living in Missouri, and at least 500 living in Oklahoma as well. There are also estimated to be around 2000 to 10,000 alligator snapping turtles living in Florida.

Estimates of the other states are impossible at this time, due to a lack of data.

The overall population trends show that the species have seen a slowdown in the decline rate in recent years and it has even reversed in some places, but without more exact data only time will really tell if this is the case.

About the 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

The alligator snapping turtle gets its name from it’s aggressive response when feeling threatened and its crocodilian appearance. These turtles have very distinctive, spiky carapaces that are impossible to miss once you’ve seen one!

The spiky armored carapace also gives an appearance similar to a plated dinosaur known as the Ankylosaurus and because of this, it is often referred to as a living dinosaur. The spikes on the back do flatten eventually with age, but this is a very slow process.

Due to their habitats, their carapaces are usually covered with algae, giving them a green coloration that helps the alligator snapper to camouflage itself in the water.

The head of this turtle is large and heavy and gives it another one of its common names – loggerhead snapper (not to be confused with the loggerhead sea turtle – no relation there!). The beaks of these turtles are hooked and sharp and unlike most snappers, these turtles have fairly short necks.

Their coloration is olive-green, black, brown, or gray, and their plastrons (lower shells) are generally yellowish. The turtle’s feet are webbed, which helps them to maneuver well in the water, and you’ll also notice that they have long, ridged tails that are almost as long as their shells.

The largest snapping turtle recorded reached a weight of 249 lb (113 kg), but most specimens will only reach a weight of 154 to 176 lb (70 to 80 kg), with a carapace length of 31.1 to 39.8 inches (79 to 101 cm).

The sex of the alligator snapper is determined by the temperature of the nest where the eggs incubate. Temperatures of 77 to 80.6 degrees Fahrenheit (25 to 27 degrees Celsius) produce mostly males and temperatures of 84.2 to 86 degrees Fahrenheit (29 to 30 degrees Celsius) produce mostly females.

Males and females reach maturity at ages 11 to 13 and at a weight of about 18 lb (8 kg) and a carapace length of 13 inches (33 cm).

Females reproduce once in alternate years. Mating occurs in early to late spring. The female lays eggs about two months after mating. A single female can lay between  8 and 52 eggs. The eggs hatch after  100 to 140 days.

Curious how to care for a captive Alligator snapping turtle? Find out more in our alligator snapper care guide!

Frequently Asked Questions

Where are alligator snappers found in Florida?

In Florida, you can find alligator snapping turtles in both the Big Bend and Panhandle regions, and they are also found in the Escambia river and all the way east to the Suwanee river basin.

Can you catch alligator snapping turtles in Florida?

No, you cannot catch or own alligator snappers in Florida, as Rule 68A-27.005 states that it is currently illegal to take, possess, or to sell the alligator snapping turtle. This is due to their protected species status in the Sunshine State.

Can you recreate an alligator snapping turtle habitat at home?

Yes, you can create an alligator snapping turtle habitat at home if you live in a state where it is legal to own them.

An outdoor pond is ideal, but rubber stock tanks are also a way that you can make space to engineer a proper alligator snapper environment.

Conclusion

The alligator snapper is one of the largest freshwater turtles in the world and quite populous throughout North America. These massive turtles are endemic to river systems such as the Mobile and Mississippi drainage basins.

They can also be found in shallow creeks that are tributary to occupied rivers (including fast upland streams), ponds, bayous, and swamps close to rivers. The species is hardy, and can even survive in brackish waters near river mouths.

Endemic to the southeastern United States, their range breaks down to western Tennessee, Louisiana, western Kentucky, southern Indiana, western Illinois, southeastern Iowa, Missouri, southeastern Kansas, south to East Texas, and east to the Florida Panhandle. 

Just be sure if you spot one not to attempt to handle them — that fierce look has a fierce bite to go with it, so leave them alone but be sure to take some pictures to share!

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