American Oceans

The Difference Between an Alligator Snapping Turtle and a Snapping Turtle

snapping turtle with its mouth open

Alligator snapping turtles and snapping turtles are two distinct species that share some similarities but also have a number of differences. As both species are found in freshwater habitats across North America, it’s important to be able to distinguish between the two. This article aims to introduce the topic and provide a clear comparison between these fascinating reptiles.

The alligator snapping turtle (Macroclemys temminckii) is known for its size, strong jaws, and unique appearance. It is considered the largest freshwater turtle in North America and can weigh up to 200 pounds. One of its distinguishing features is the worm-like appendage on its tongue, used as a lure for catching prey link. On the other hand, the snapping turtle (Chelydra serpentina) is smaller in size but still has a powerful bite, with a more aggressive behavior compared to the alligator snapping turtle link.

Both species have adapted to their respective environments and play significant roles in maintaining the ecosystem balance. With different feeding habits and mating strategies, understanding the differences between the alligator snapping turtle and the snapping turtle will not only help in their identification but also contribute to the implementation of more effective conservation measures.

Snapping Turtle vs Alligator Snapping Turtle

giant snapping turtle in a cage

The snapping turtles are divided into two main species: the common snapping turtle (Chelydra serpentina) and the alligator snapping turtle (Macrochelys temminckii). Both species are found in the United States, but they have different habitats and characteristics that set them apart from each other.

Physical Appearance

The common snapping turtle has a relatively smooth, olive or grayish-brown carapace (shell) with a jagged posterior edge. Its head is large and triangular, with a hooked beak and long neck. The tail is also quite long, often about the same length as the carapace, and features saw-like ridges along the top.

On the other hand, the alligator snapping turtle has a more distinct appearance. Its carapace is noticeably rougher and covered in large, raised ridges which resemble the scutes of an alligator. The head is also larger and more pronounced, with powerful jaws and a worm-like lure on its tongue used for attracting prey. The tail is relatively shorter compared to the common snapping turtle.

Size and Weight

In terms of size and weight, both species can grow quite large, but the alligator snapping turtle is significantly heavier. The common snapping turtle typically reaches a carapace length of up to 18 inches and a weight of around 50 pounds in large adults.

The alligator snapping turtle, on the other hand, has been recorded with carapace lengths of about 26 inches and can weigh between 175 to 220 pounds in large males. The increased size and weight of the alligator snapping turtle give it a more formidable appearance compared to its common counterpart.

Habitat and Distribution

an alligator snapping turtle in the grass

Alligator snapping turtles and snapping turtles both are found primarily in freshwater habitats. They prefer slow-moving or still waters with plenty of vegetation, such as wetland areas, lakes, and river systems. Both species are also known to inhabit muddy river bottoms, where they can hide and ambush prey.

Alligator snapping turtles have a preference for deeper waters with plenty of submerged logs and vegetation. In contrast, snapping turtles can be found in shallower waters, such as ponds and slow-moving streams.

Geographical Regions

Regarding their distribution across geographical regions, alligator snapping turtles are mostly found in the Southeastern United States. Their range includes the region from eastern Texas to the Gulf of Mexico. Additionally, their habitats stretch from Florida to southeastern Kansas and some parts of central America.

On the other hand, snapping turtles have a broader distribution, encompassing most of North America. Their range extends from southeastern Canada to the Gulf of Mexico and from the Rocky Mountains to the Atlantic coast. Some notable states with snapping turtle populations include Iowa, Illinois, and the Carolinas.

Diet and Feeding Habits

an alligator snapping turtle with its mouth open

Alligator snapping turtles (Macrochelys temminckii) have a primarily carnivorous diet, feeding on various aquatic animals. They are known to prey on fish, water birds, mollusks, and carrion 1. An interesting aspect of their feeding behavior is their unique hunting technique. Alligator snapping turtles possess a worm-like appendage on their tongue, which they use as a lure to attract unsuspecting prey 2.

  • Primary diet: Carnivorous
  • Common prey: Fish, water birds, mollusks, carrion

Common Snapping Turtle Diet

Contrastingly, common snapping turtles (Chelydra serpentina) exhibit a more omnivorous diet. They consume both meat and plants, feeding on various types of prey such as fish, invertebrates, and even small mammals 3. While common snapping turtles are active hunters, they are also known to scavenge for food when necessary, consuming carrion on occasion. Their diet may also include aquatic plants to complement their animal-based food sources.

  • Primary diet: Omnivorous
  • Common prey: Fish, invertebrates, small mammals, aquatic plants

Behavior and Lifestyle

snapping turtle up close

Alligator snapping turtles and snapping turtles have distinct hunting techniques. Alligator snapping turtles are primarily ambush predators, lying motionless underwater with their wide-open mouth, camouflaged by algae, and using their pink, worm-like appendage to attract prey like fish and amphibians. On the other hand, snapping turtles actively hunt for prey, which includes fish, amphibians, and even plants.

Both species have a few natural predators, but the main threat to adult alligator snapping turtles is humans. Meanwhile, snapping turtles face predation from animals like raccoons, foxes, and birds of prey, mainly during their younger stages.

Mating and Nesting

The mating and nestling behaviors of alligator snapping turtles and snapping turtles have some similarities but also differ. For both species, mating typically occurs in spring. Male snapping turtles exhibit more aggressive courtship behaviors while alligator snapping turtle males are subtler in their approach.

Alligator snapping turtles build nests near water, laying about 10 to 50 eggs and covering them with foliage to protect against predators. The snapping turtle also creates a nest close to water, laying between 20 to 40 eggs, similarly covering them in vegetation. However, snapping turtles are more likely to choose locations further from water compared to their alligator snapping counterparts.

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