There are only two types of snapping turtles in the entire world, the alligator snapping turtle and the common snapping turtles. Both are indigenous to certain parts of the United States, but are commonly kept as pets worldwide.
Common snapping turtles tend to be more common than the alligator snapping turtle.
If you’re interested in keeping an alligator snapping turtle as a pet, this guide is a great starting point.
It’s all the essentials you need to know to understand this cute little shelled friend that bit more.
Let’s take a closer look at the alligator snapping turtle and how to care for it:
A Little Background On The Alligator Snapping Turtle
Alligator snapping turtles (macrochelys temminckii) are the largest freshwater turtles in North America and usually live in waterways like lakes, canals, rivers and bayous. The water is always preferred to be deeper if possible, and you won’t commonly find them in a pond or shallow stream. That being said, they can be found in swamps and more shallow waters.
The turtles can be found in the Southern parts of the United States and despite them being pretty tough, they are sadly listed as vulnerable by the International Union For Conservation Of Nature.
When it comes to their temperament with people – they are sassy. They will lunge and give you a nasty bite, especially if they feel threatened. They won’t go out of their way to hurt you though as they are quite timid, so an attack is always a defensive, rather than offensive move. Still, you can hear of stores of those whom were bit by snapping turtle.
There are lots of reasons that people love the alligator snapping turtle. One reason is that it has a really interesting style of hunting. They camouflage themselves with leaves and mud and then use their tongue as a fishing lure.
The unsuspecting fish will then be attracted to the lure where it is then ambushed by the turtle. You can see this impressive ambush hunting style play out in this Youtube Video.
Alligator Snapping Turtle Statistics
Life Span – Some alligator snapping turtles can live well over 100 years although there isn’t much known about wild snapping turtle average lifespans. Their average lifespan in captivity is up to 70 years.
Size – Males are smaller than females, but both will have a shell about 16-26 inches long.
Weight – Males weight between 20 and 75 pounds and females weigh anywhere from 70 to 200 pounds.
Time Spent In Water – They can hold their breath for around 40-50 minutes and may spend most of their time in the water
Social Life – Alligator turtles are solitary animals.
Reproduction – Females nest from April to June and lay up to 45 eggs at a time nearby to the water. Eggs hatch about three months after being laid.
Status – Alligator snapping turtles are endangered and have some level of legal protection because of this, but the enforcement of the protection is difficult to maintain.
Diet – Alligator snapping turtles eat all kinds of foods depending on local availability. They will eat fish, snakes, crustaceans, plant roots, small mammals and even birds.
Threats – Sadly, the main predator of an alligator snapping turtle is humans. Whilst baby turtles can be eaten by various birds and mammals, humans are the main predator for human turtles. They may get hunted for food, to be illegally kept as pets (more in this below) and they can also be run over on highways and roads.
Keeping An Alligator Snapping Turtle As A Pet
It is always recommended that you buy a domestic alligator snapping turtle rather than take an animal from the wild. This is the most ethical and environmentally friendly choice, and gives you the best chance of having a healthy animal in your care.
Here are some tips on caring for your new prehistoric looking friend:
How To Hold An Alligator Snapping Turtle
Small turtles can be held by holding the turtles at the sides carefully, making sure you have a good grip of the animal. Adult turtles can weigh as much as a person so it is a little harder. You will need to hold the shell behind the head and in front of the tail being extra careful to avoid the mouth, which is very strong. You should never hold the tail of a snapping turtle as this could cause spine damage.
When handling your turtle please also remain aware of the risk of salmonella. In 1975 the US Food and Drug Administration stopped turtles under 4 inches (carapace) in length being sold to reduce the risk of salmonella. However, all turtles can carry it and there is no way to tell if they do or not. The best thing to do is always wash your hands after handling the turtle and never touch your mouth before you give your hands a good scrub.
Children are at a particularly high risk of getting salmonella from turtles as their immune systems are lower. In fact, the CDC recommends you don’t even look to own a turtle or similar animals if you have children aged five or under because of the salmonella risk.
You should quarantine your turtle for around 90 days at least, away from any other chelonians in the house. During this time it is a good idea to visit an exotics experienced vet to check the animal over and run some basic tests.
Some basic observations you can do yourself include:
- Is the turtle heavy? If not it could be unwell.
- Is the turtle alert? If it seems overly docile it could be sick. They do relax after a while when being handled but at first they should have some reaction to being picked up.
- Are there soft spots on the shell (top and bottom) if there are, the turtle could have shell rot.
- Are there any flies on the turtle? If there are, there could be some infected wounds.
- Are there any signs of damage to the turtle’s shell or body, such as blood? Open wounds need attention.
- Does the turtle have swollen eyes? If so it may be deficient in vitamin A and its diet needs changing accordingly.
- Does the turtle have an abscess? See your vet if it doesn’t go away on its own within a few days.
- Does your turtle have less of an appetite, nasal and eye discharge? It may have a lung infection and requires immediate attention.
Of course, over time you will get to know what is normal for your turtle. The best option is to see a vet as soon as you notice there are any issues so that they can be diagnosed and treated as soon as possible.
Protecting Your Turtle During Transport
Whether you are taking your turtle to the vets or home from the breeders it has to be transported properly to avoid damage.
You should never transport them in water because they could drown. Instead a container with some damp newspaper or paper towels will work well for smaller turtles. You may have to add some heat pads and use a polystyrene container if the weather is very cold (your breeder should be able to advise you on this).
With larger turtles you will need to think carefully about how to setup the transportation for them. The seller should be able to advise you on this so you can plan it long in advance of the journey.
You’ll need to raise the water temperature of the turtle’s enclosure to remain at between 75 and 80 degrees Fahrenheit. This will differ depending on whether you have a northern or southern alligator snapping turtle type. Using a turtle tank thermometer and the appropriate warming accessories will help you monitor this.
The water should also have sunny spots and shaded spots, which you can provide with a mix of reeds and other suitable plants in the pond.
Snapping turtles grow really quickly so it’s a good idea to be ready to expand their enclosure as they grow along the following measurement guidelines –
- Hatchlings – 20-50 gallon tank up to a year
- Juveniles – (Over 8 inches) 55 gallon tank until adulthood
- Adults – 200-800 gallon enclosure
As a general rule, the bigger is better with an alligator snapping turtle enclosure. They also require running water and space to be immersed in that water, as well as a land area.
You can choose from a metal or a plastic tank, with metal tanks needing pond liner to avoid the metals seeping into the water and hurting your turtle.
When the turtle gets bigger it will need a pond built and will likely be too big for a tank. Cement ponds tend to be more durable but more expensive.
The pond should be –
- Over three quarters shallow and warm
- A maximum depth of three metres in the middle
- Offering a gentle slope and no difficult steps for the turtle to navigate to get in and out
When the pond is built you should add appropriate protection for the turtle as raccoons, cats and other animals will try to prey on the turtle.
Lastly, the water will need to be filtered and circulated to keep it clear and full of oxygen. You can make ponds that don’t need filtration but it is much harder. Either way, both types of ponds will need a way to drain the water for the best maintenance options.
Alligator snapping turtles do not necessarily require UVB lighting, but will appreciate incandescent basking lights in the tank for when they do decide to get out and bask.
Lots of turtle owners will recommend that the tank contains no substrate which will help the water stay clean and reduce the chance of bacteria growing.
However, that doesn’t mean your snapper should not have a little hiding place. It’s a basic instinct your turtle has and it will help them feel safe.
Lining the tank with smooth rocks too large to be swallowed by the snapper or trap the snapper underneath is a good idea. You can seal these to the surface with a waterproof, aquarium sealant. You may also want to think about providing turtle suitable plants, or turtle suitable plastic plants or even some treated driftwood (which can look really nice).
Snappers don’t really bask but they do need to get oxygen and rest. For this reason you should add things like large rocks, logs and other safe items for your turtle to climb on and bask. You could simply get a turtle basking platform to meet this requirement.
Feeding Your Turtle
In the wild snappers tend to eat whatever they can, making it a varied diet.
Your turtle will need that same variation, with babies and juveniles getting fed daily and adults getting a feed every other day.
Over-feeding them will only dirty their tank so try not to feed them more food than about the size of their head (as a general guide). Over time you will get a feel for how much food your turtle tends to require.
When it comes to preparing the diet of your turtle you’ll need to provide lots of varied food types even if you give them a commercial feed.
In captivity zoos will often feed snappers fish, worms, small mammals, age-appropriate commercial feed and raw beef and chicken. Live foods can also be fed to your snapper in the form of shrimp, crickets, minnows, snails, worms and similar animals. Live foods help keep your turtle stimulated and active.
Fruits and veggies like kale and lettuce will also help to boost the diet of your snapper.
Although snapping turtles can hibernate for a short time in the wild it is thought to be a risky practice for snappers in captivity under three. For your turtle’s safety, you can stop it from hibernating by keeping its water at a warmer temperature.
If you do wish to hibernate the turtle wait until it is over three years old and consult your exotic animal veterinarian for advice on how to do it properly. It needs to be done really carefully for the safety of the animal so it is best to seek advice.
As with substrate, the topic of water and alligator snapping turtle enclosures is complex and important. There are guidelines with the salt content, temperature, chemical structure and filtration that need to be carefully assessed before the turtle is purchased.
The same rules for the other elements apply here and will influence the health of the turtle, so it is important to get right before you get your turtle.
The best thing to do is speak to the breeder you’re purchasing from, and consult other experts in regards to your setup as a whole.
Before making your purchase, read as much as possible on caring for turtles to help you get a really good insight into these incredible animals and how to give them a healthy, nurturing environment that ensures that they thrive in your care.
“The turtle’s teachings are so beautiful. So very special. It teaches us that everything you are, everything you need and everything you bring to the world is inside you, not external, and you carry it with you, and are not limited to a place, space or time.” – Eileen Anglin
If you’re considering getting an alligator snapping turtle, or common snapping turtle, there’s a lot of work to do to prepare for this tiny little prehistoric cutie’s arrival.
The more research and preparation you do, the more likely your new little alligator snapping turtle is going to be happy, healthy and content in your care.
Be sure to check out My Turtle Shop Here for the essentials you need to help you set up.