Rare Alligator Snapping Turtle Found at Center Hill

Wildlife diversity biologist Chris Simpson and Putnam County wildlife officer Mike Beaty measure the overall length of the alligator snapping turtle. (TWRA Photo)
While regular snapping turtles are found all across Tennessee, alligator snapping turtles are typically found only in West Tennessee and a small portion of the Cumberland River. (TWRA Image)

Authorities found a rare alligator snapping turtle at Center Hill Lake on the Cumberland Plateau. Although the huge turtle was dead, it was still a notable find. Alligator snapping turtles were thought to live in only in West Tennessee and a small portion of the Cumberland River. Alligator snapping turtles should not be confused with regular snapping turtles, which are found all across the state. Alligator snapping turtles have a longer snout with hooked beak, extra marginal scutes, and more conspicuous ridges on the shell.

When the find was reported on Center Hill lake U.S. Army Corp of Engineers authorities called the area Tennessee Wildlife Resources Agency wildlife officer, Mike Beaty, who in turn called Region 3 wildlife diversity biologist, Chris Simpson. The pair tracked down the turtle for documentation and research purposes. Alligator snapping turtles are classified as “In Need of Management” by TWRA, and considered very rare and imperiled by the Tennessee Department of Environment and Conservation. Populations were severely reduced in the past due to unregulated harvesting and habitat loss.

Female alligator snapping turtles leave the water in spring or summer to dig a nest and lay up to 50 or 60 round, leathery eggs. The eggs will hatch in 2.5 to 3.5 months later, depending on the nest temperature and humidity. Females do not provide any care for their young.(Photo credit embedded on TWRA photo)

West Tennessee TWRA biologists have been working with alligator snappers since the 1990’s to protect existing populations and restore them to other areas where populations have declined.

Alligator snapping turtles prefer slow moving waters with soft substrate. These turtles are not as long lived as other large turtles such as ocean turtles. Males live an average of 26 years and females live an average of 23 years. The alligator snapping turtle is the largest turtle in Tennessee with an average shell length of 20-24 inches.

Simpson said the shell measurement on the Center Hill Lake alligator snapping turtle was 19.5 inches and an overall length of four feet. The turtle was fairly decayed and could not be weighed. It is thought to be a male. Genetic material was also collected for further analysis.

The hooked beak is just one of the identifying characteristics of an alligator snapping turtle. The alligator snapping turtle has a very unique hunting strategy. While lying on the bottom of a lake or river it holds its mouth wide open and wiggles a small wormlike appendage on the floor of its mouth to lure unsuspecting fish. (TWRA Photo)

How the turtle came to be at Center Hill Lake could remain a mystery. Did someone illegally release the turtle and if so when? Center Hill Lake dam was built in 1948. The turtle would not have been in the area prior to the building of the dam. However, this species naturally occurred in the Cumberland River system prior to the building of the dam.  Genetic testing might reveal the waterway of origin.

Simpson said, “Dealing with these situations and cataloging information is truly enjoyable. Any information we can gain on a GCN species is valuable”.

Sightings can be reported by contacting TWRA (Chattanooga Regional Office: 1-800-262-6704).

Learn more about alligator snapping turtles here.

Wildlife diversity biologist Chris Simpson takes a genetic sample that might reveal more information. (TWRA Photo)
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