Alligator Snapping Turtle

Believe it or not, I spotted this tiny turtle in the road while driving home from the grocery store. This newly-hatched Alligator Snapping Turtle (Macrochelys temminckii) {Update: Thanks to readers of this post, I have learned that I found a baby Common Snapping Turtle (Chelydra serpentina) – just as cute, not as imperiled. Thanks for the ID help!} , had his neck fully extended, and his dark color contrasted sharply against the paved road.  I saw  him just in time to make sure that my car tires passed on either side of him, then pulled to the curb. When I saw that I had been right, I didn’t hesitate to pick him up.

alligator snapping turtle, front view

Normally I would carry a turtle across the road, and leave him heading in the same general direction. Since this little turtle could only be days-old at most, I thought it would be safer for the little guy if I took him to my garden. To be honest, I did not know what kind of turtle he was – only that he was unlike any turtle I had come across before.

alligator snapping turtle, underside

He didn’t like this position very much, so I took the picture quickly. His underside was a combination of hard and soft spots. Look how long his tail is! Also, I have no idea if this is a boy or girl – I’m just using “he” for convenience.

alligator snapping turtle in the grass

When I pulled into my driveway, I immediately walked over to show him to Mr. Green Thumbs, who was out on his front porch. (Mr. Green Thumbs is my neighbor, and a recurring character in some of my stories). Mr. Green Thumbs thought this little guy was lucky to be saved from probably getting flattened by a car.  Me too – then I started wondering if I should put him near my pond or in the bushes for cover.

alligator snapping turtle grass side view

After this picture, I turned off my flash because I felt bad about blinding the little fella. I waited nearby for about 5 minutes, hoping he would extend his neck again. No luck. Then I thought I had better just go inside and let him settle in. I put him near a dense section of Flame Acanthus (Anisacanthus wrightii), where I knew he could find cover.

A few minutes later, Mr. Green Thumbs rang the doorbell. He had identified the turtle for me and brought over a 3-page report. We sat and talked about him for a few minutes – Mr. Green Thumbs summarized by saying that the little turtle is going to get big and mean! I hope he does, because now I’ve been worrying that he might not find the pond that was about 10 feet away from the bushes where I left him.

little pond

The photo above was taken a couple of weeks ago, but this is the little pond where I should have put the little turtle – somewhere on the rocks.  This view does not show the bushes where I let him go, but they are only about 10 feet to the left. I even went out after Mr. Green Thumbs went home – flashlight in hand – to see if I could find the turtle and put him right by the pond. Alligator Snapping Turtles are aquatic turtles, so I’m hoping his instincts kick in and he finds the water.

This little pond would not make a suitable home for him for long, because this type of turtle can grow to 12-15 inches (shell, aka carapace)1 I have a much larger pond in my back yard…which may accommodate him as he grows. But I fear even that pond would not make a good long-term home, since the pond has a liner to keep the water from seeping into the ground. Plus, I worried, I know I have a 3-foot snake plus baby snakes in that pond. I found this snake skin just a couple of weeks ago:

water snake skin

I have never seen this snake, but this is the 2nd skin I have found since the start of the summer. I suppose there could be more than one big snake – after all, there ARE little snakes around. I believe they are a species of Nerodia, so they are not venomous. A snake this large might want to eat a little turtle no larger than the camera lens cover shown here!

While researching this turtle to write this blog post, I discovered another fact that I had not known. The IUCN Red List classifies the Alligator Snapping Turtle as Vulnerable, which is one step away from Endangered. When I learned this, my angst over the well-being of this tiny turtle baby was renewed. Since I learned this about an hour ago…I’m still feeling quite a bit of angst!

If I’m all- “Ms. Nature,” – and I didn’t know what kind of turtle I found, what habitat he needed, or that I should probably contact a wildlife expert…I wonder how well he would have fared had someone else found him? I shudder to think of him winding up in an aquarium as someone’s pet.

I already looked for him again today – no luck. I may walk the area where I found him to see if there are other little turtles headed in the wrong direction. If I succeed in finding another one of these vulnerable turtles, I will call local wildlife experts to find out which local habitat would best suit him. I will definitely post an update if I encounter any more little snappers!

UPDATE – ADDITIONAL PICTURE, POSTED APRIL 23, 2010:

Common or Alligator Snapping Turtle (baby)

Common or Alligator Snapping Turtle (baby)

Be sure to click to enlarge to 1560px for close inspection!

  1. Wikipedia report generated 9/16/09, http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Alligator_snapping_turtle

55 Responses to “I Rescued a Baby Alligator Snapping Turtle!”

  • Great rescue, Amber! Kudos to you for doing what few others would do. I’ve been known to stop traffic–police cars included–to help a turtle cross the road.

    What a cute baby! Great shots. I’m betting any of the local lakes would be appropriate habitat, though Texas Parks and Wildlife would offer the best guidance I think.

    Funny thing about alligator snapping turtles: they aren’t as mean as common snappers. In truth, they’re less prone to arbitrary snapping as are their close relatives. Still, they’re dangerous: they can easily amputate a finger or two.

    And ‘Wow!’ on the snake skin. Very cool find. Hope you get a chance to see the previous owner of that thing.

  • AJ:

    Maybe your angst will be alleviated when the turtle grows up and eats the dogs.

    Great post and photos!

  • Julie:

    Cute baby! I know the Botanic Gardens in Ft. Worth have a lot of turtles, but I guess they are the regular snappers, as well as some others. Please keep us posted!

  • Jason-it sounds like you know a thing or two about turtles! I wish I had known what kind he was before I let him go in my garden…but I’ll definitely relocate him to a more suitable home if I see him again. As for the snake – I hope to catch a glimpse of him too. Or her…I’ve seen at least 2 little ones.

    AJ-always the drama queen. :-)

    Julie-I squealed in excitement at how cute he was – probably scared him! I am ashamed to admit that I have never visited the Botanic Gardens in Fort Worth. I have visited the Dallas Arboretum many times, but I really should take the time to visit the Fort Worth gardens. And I’ll definitely post updates if I’m lucky enough to come across him or any of his siblings.

  • Yosista:

    Oh my goodness, that little bugger is SO FRIGGIN’ CUTE!!!! I love your huge squishy heart! xoxox, e.

  • Nick:

    Hi, I am glad to say that the turtle you found is a Common Snapping Turtle-Not The Alligator Snapping Turtle.

    -Regards, Nick Cecrle

  • Louise:

    Hi Amber,

    My daughter rescued a baby alligator snapping turtle in my yard. How he got there or where he came from I don’t know. He was about to be ant food so she brought him in the house, where he resides at the moment. What is my next move. What does he eat in the mean time.

    • Hi Louise,
      I think you should contact your local wildlife rehab – could be an individual or an organization. I can help you locate if you like – you can send me your location info via my (private) contact form. As for what to feed him/her until then, try for anything you might find in a freshwater pond. This may include minnows, vegetation, and snails. There are also many suggestions at this site: Wiki Answers

    • d curry:

      you can feed him fruits and veggies such as grapes cherries minnows water lettuce cooked chicken(fresh)

  • I’m sorry, Amber, but I completely failed to catch the species. The underbelly spots and nose size/shape make it a common snapper. Both species have the pronounced ridges when that young; the alligator snapper keeps the Godzilla look while the common snapper loses it in favor of a smoother shell. I’m so ashamed I missed that the first time.

  • Bryan:

    Don’t know if anybody’s reading this post anymore but I just found one that looks identical to this one and from what I can tell from this website
    http://www.tpwd.state.tx.us/publications/pwdpubs/media/pwd_lf_w7000_1667.pdf
    it is a common snapping turtle because of the dorsal ridge on the tail.
    I have been looking up what to do with it if it was an alligator snapper because they are listed as threatened in Texas but since it is a common snapper it is okay to release it but the bigger the pond the better, so I’ll be taking this one to a pond I fish at in Clear Lake tomorrow. I got an answer to my question on another message board I found and if you do find a real alligator snapper the best thing to do with it would be to turn it over to the Texas Wildlife Rehabilitation Coalition. Their shelter is located in Houston, and they do rescue turtles. The address is:

    10801 Hammerly Blvd., Suite 200 Houston, TX 77043

    HOTLINE: 713-468-8972

    EMAIL
    director@twrc-houston.org

    Here is their web site:

    http://www.twrc-houston.org/

    They also said, “You don’t want to put any kind of heat on it since it will be going outdoors again. There’s also no need to feed it. It will be fine overnight. The sink or bathtub would be suitable, but after you release the turtle, you’ll need to take some precautions to protect yourself and your family. Many turtles carry salmonella, so you’ll need to give the tub/sink a good scrubbing, and then disinfect it with bleach or rubbing alcohol. Also, be sure to wash your hands with soap after handling the turtle.”
    Hope this helps anyone else.

  • Jason-no worries.

    Bryan-thanks so much for the additional info! I am glad that the baby turtle I found turned out to be a common snapper. I haven’t seen him again, and can only hope that he is in one of my ponds, safe and sound.

    Thanks to Bryan, Jason, and Nick – any followers of this post now know much more about how to identify baby snapping turtles, what to do with them when found, and how to prevent any trouble after handling them. It is so rewarding to participate in this kind of informative interaction. Thank to everyone!

  • Mariah:

    That baby alligator snapping turtle is soooo cute… I was wondering if you would mind if I used the picture that you put on this website for my endangered species report… get back to me as soon as possible. Thank you

  • Hi Mariah-I agree, the baby turtle is just adorable…but I’ve learned that this turtle is a Common Snapping Turtle, so this photo would not be right for your endangered species report. I apologize for the mistaken ID…but I’m glad for the learning experience. Good luck with your project!

  • Debbie:

    Hi Amber, I just randomly came across this website and your posting regarding the little turtle you found. Oddly enough the exact same thing happened to me! I found the little guy crossing the road as well and he is just as small as your little guy. The reason I am writing to you is to tell you that you did in fact have an Alligator Snapping Turtle, not a common snapper. The way you can tell the difference is the 3 ridges on the back of its shell. An alligator snapper has what look like 3 “rows” of ridges on its back and what you had there was definitely an Alligator snapper. You can easily do a search online and view photos comparing the two at this age and you will see, without a doubt, that is an alligator snapping turtle. You are correct in that they will grow large, they are either the largest or one of the largest aquatic turtles and are “unfriendly”. They are not very aggressive, they do not “go looking for trouble” but if pushed to its limit it could easily remove a finger or two. It is hard to believe when you look at them when they are this small though :) I read a story on the net about a man who rescued and raised one of these turtles from this size and when it grew up it snapped off a huge chunk of his arm! They are a step before endangered and it is recommended that if you do find one of these little guys to keep it for 1 year if possible, and then release it. There are several predators of these little guys and he will fare much better if given a safe place to grow and have a fighting chance. At this size a bird will easily swoop him up and have him for a meal, as well as the owners of those snake skins you showed. If you are able to find him again please keep him for the year if you are able or bring him to a rescue. We have enough endangered/extinct animals in this world :( we dont want this little guy being added to the growing list. By the way, hats off to you for being such a caring person and taking him out of the road. You are right, he would have been better off in the water but no matter where you put him in your yard he was better off than he was where you found him, right? :) Also his instincts should kick in for him, have you checked the pond? I am sure you have, that was probably the first place you looked. I hope you are able to find him but if not you still gave him a much better chance then he had in the road :) I have had mine for about 2 months now so I have 10 more months to go and then I will release him in a nearby pond where he will be happy and be big enough to have a fighting chance at survival, but I must say at the rate he is growing I doubt he will be much bigger by then….he still looks the same size to me :) but then mothers always think that about their baby’s :)

  • Hi Debbie – thanks so much for writing. I have looked around my little pond, where I released the little fella, as well as my larger pond in the back yard. So far, I have not seen him. I wonder if at this time of year though, maybe he is down in the mud? I filled in parts of both ponds with dirt, so there actually is a fair amount of mud/plant/plant roots in both ponds. Do you think a bullfrog would get him? Leopard frog? I can only hope for the best for him, and I look for him every single time I go out there. I once found a baby red-eared slider in my little pond – I was smoothing the bottom layer of rocks after dumping in a bucket of rainwater that exposed the liner – and there he was! Here’s crossing my fingers that the little snapper just crawled in the right direction!

    I would love to hear how your little turtle does over time, and how large he grows by the time you release him! Thanks again for the comment – I am very glad to hear from someone who has had the same experience. :-)

  • [...] a snapping turtle with your bare hands!  In another post, HoH’s own Amber talks about her attempts to rescue a snapping turtle at Birder’s Lounge.  Fortunately for Amber, the little guy was just a tot – not nearly [...]

  • Hi Amber..this is so funny because I too found a baby snapper in our garage which I was going to use for a future HOH post. Living so close to a pond, I find baby turtles from time to time, but this was my first snapper. They are cute and then they grow up..lol….PS..there is a whole website for people who keep them as pets and insist they can be ‘loving’ pets….yeah sure…Michelle

  • It’s heartwarming to see how much concern and input this post generated.

  • Me too, Marvin. I think this has been my most active and on-going discussion. It’s been great!

  • Wretch:

    Hey there, I actually have one of these as a pet; about a year old at this point. He was the same size as the one you have in that picture when we found him. Out fishing, and he just tumbled down the hill beside us, so we took him home and set him up a wonderful habitat. Named him “Lord Belial,” and at this point, his shell is about 5 inches long, 3 1/2 inches wide.

    At the size you have there, it’s true; they aren’t aggressive, but to say that when it grows a bit is almost ludicrous. After about six months, when you start seeing it open it’s mouth a bit more, I would keep you fingers away from it’s face. Whatever it thinks it might be able to eat, it will try to eat.

    And if you see a large one outside, you may just want to leave it alone. They are quite angry as they get older, and have the second strongest bite force in the world.

  • Grace Spears:

    I am so glad I ran accross this post. We rescued an alligator turtle when he was the size of the one in the picture that you took. Our little guy was the size of a quarter I am assuming freshly hatched. We found him in a fire ant bed, we picked the ants off and washed him up. We already had set up a 55 gal tank for a slider and couter that we found crossing the road they was also very small and now small babies are now about 4 inches. They seem to get along though we do have to feed them seperately. But now we are thinking there is no way that we will be able to keep the snapper. I feel so bad he is just so darn cute and extremely gentle we let our 3 year old mess with him under close supervision (I don’t put anything past animals) when we clean the tank once a week. And I have no idea what to do with him, I am scared if we turn him loose he will end up on a fishing line and the thought makes me sick. But I seen in an earlier post of the TWRC I am going to contact them and hopefully they will take him in.

  • Hello, Grace. It sounds like you sure did save that little turtle’s life. Now that he is growing, it would be great if he could be released into the wild. I’ll bet that Texas Wildlife Rehabilitation Coalition (TWRC) will be able to help and know the right thing to do. I would love to hear how it goes! Good luck. :-)

  • Jennifer:

    My husband found a baby snapper (common or alligator we are not sure) all dried up and looked like it was about to die. We put him in a little tank and are trying to feed him meal worms and fish food pellets until he gets stronger. Then we will release him to the local creek.
    He’s very cute but he’d have a much happier life in the wild. I’m afraid to keep him too long because he needs to depend on himself instead of us. Does anyone have any suggestions? Contacting the conservation department is probably what we’ll do but I just thought I’d ask. Thanks.

    • Hi Jennifer – sounds like you found him just in time. I agree, he will probably do well in a creek near the place you found him. I suggest you contact a local wildlife rehab facility. It just so happens that I have been working on building a directory of wildlife rehabs for the US. It is still a work-in-progress, but we have at least two organizations for each state. You may want to take a look – http://www.naturesquad.net.

      I would love to hear back if you are able to find the help you need from one of the orgs we have listed. It makes the hours of volunteered time and effort well worth it!

      • Jennifer:

        HI Amber,
        Thank you for all your hard work. It is appreciated!

        I called our World Aquarium here in St. Louis and they told me to keep him for a few weeks until I’m sure it won’t frost or freeze again, and not to worry about humanizing him at this early stage – his instincts will kick in when he’s released.

        They also told me that he’s an alligator snapper because of the 3 ridges he has and therefore he really needs to repopulate in the wild; I am to put him in a creek. There is one about a mile away, probably where he came from. They don’t want me putting him in a large river because he’d surely become food for someone else.

        He’s taking mealworms from me (and my pair of needle-nose pliers!) The techs at the aquarium also said he’s only supposed to eat a couple times a week but he seems to want food more often than that so I’m feeding him every other day; he certainly isn’t eating very much at once. He sticks his head out to see me so I figure he’s looking for food. I think it’s cool that he’s not shy anymore :)

        I’m really glad to have a sounding board about this. Thank you for your help! It’s great to know people care about wildlife.

        • What great news, Jennifer! I’m so glad to know that you found the advice you needed to help your little Alligator Snapper. The response to this post has been amazing – easily the most popular and long-running discussion at Birder’s Lounge. It warms my heart to hear from people who have had similar experiences, and go online looking for answers. Yours is a great success story, and that’s one lucky Alligator Snapping turtle, thanks to your compassion. You’re awesome. :-D

  • This is funny because we just found another commmon snapping turtle in the road. It must have over wintered in the nest. It looked dead, but had just dried up and become dehydrated. I took some pond water and put the turtle in water enough to go under. I put some leaves and a stick in there as it approximates the wetland pond. After a couple of hours it was moving around and made a dash under the leaves when it saw us. So I took it to the pond in the shallow part near leaves it could hide under. We have many snappers and a few really big ones. All these little guys are not going to survive, but it’s the dignity of risk…..I found find where an appropriate habitat would be and let it go.. Just my opinion as I find a couple every year in the fall or spring….Michelle

    • Thanks, Michelle. It seems that if you find a baby turtle somewhere, it is probably not far from where it hatched. The one I found way back at the beginning of this post was in the road, and the nearby creek was about 12-15ft down a steep bank. That is why I put him near a pond that I had on my property, though I still wish I had put him closer to the water’s edge. If I ever see him, I will check with my local rehab, and find out the best place to relocate him.

      • I want to find out how these baby turtles know which way to go or is it luck because the ones we find are heading in the right direction. There is a very large female who is in the pond right off my yard and she grabs waterfowl. We see her leave in June to go lay her eggs and come back. Now she is a scary female. I’m lucky in that I don’t have to go far to get to the pond. I have also found other species of baby turtles…Michelle

  • Debbie:

    Hi Amber, I had written you a huge reply just giving you an update on the little one we are caring for but somehow the whole response just vanished lol It is rather late and I am taking college courses online and have homework to do so I will write again either tomorrow or over the next few days to give you the update you wanted :) Take care!! :)

    +

    • Yikes, Debbie! I’m so sorry that happened…argh!! Well, I look forward to any update you have – here’s hoping your little guy is doing well and nearing the day he will be ready for release.

  • Louise:

    Are you sure that it’s a common snapping turtle? In my research a common snapping turtle has a smooth shell and spike tail.

    • Hi Louise – I am NOT sure about whether this little snapper is the Common Snapping Turtle (Chelydra serpentina) or an Alligator Snapping Turtle (Macroclemys temminckii). We have had several comments here about the ID of this little guy, which seems to be extra-difficult given the turtle’s young age.

      I will post an appeal for ID help at House of Herps, asking for ID tips that we could all use to help us when we come across these turtles crossing the road!

      I have posted another picture of this baby turtle at the bottom of the original post – it can be enlarged to 1560px, which may help with others who want to help us with ID.

      • At that age, dorsal shell ridging and tail shape are usually unreliable. Both species are born with ridges of some height, but those ridges smooth out as they age (in both species, though in common much faster than in alligator).

        The plastron pattern is quite reliable, though. Look at the ventral side of the shell (the belly). If the plastron has no appreciable white spots around the openings and edges, then it’s an alligator snapping turtle (their young have an all-green plastron). If there are white spots, it’s a common snapping turtle. That’s the easiest way I’ve learned to ID hatchlings and young since the more common indicators aren’t reliable until they get older.

        That’s my story and I’m sticking to it! ;-)

  • Monique:

    Nice job and good luck? Am I the only one who read that she put this almost 2 inch long baby turtle in that big back yard with a pool of baby snakes and other snakes? Lol, what would make you think that you were going to go back out there and actually find him and did any one reead the fact that she never responded to finding it? What you did was not commendable, it was selfish and stupid. You should have just left it alone. It probably is dead n probably had a better chance in the wild!

    • AJ:

      Yes, Monique, you ARE the only one who “read” that Amber put the turtle in the “big back yard with a pool of baby snakes and other snakes” – because that’s not what she frickin’ wrote. She put it in the bushes near a smaller pond in her side yard (see photo). Someone with such inept reading comprehension skills should probably think twice before calling others “stupid.”

      Also, you say she’s “selfish”? Really? The dictionary definition of the word is: “characterized by or manifesting concern or care only for oneself.” Amber saved the turtle from getting run over by a vehicle, Monique; it’s not like she skinned it to make herself a cute little purse.

      In the future, perhaps it would be more beneficial if you devoted your Internet time to working on pulling that I.Q. of yours out of the single-digit range.

      • AJ, I focus on not feeding the trolls. It brings them back time and again since they know there’s a good source of bile nourishment.

  • Eva:

    Believe it or not I found him in my basement, which is concrete, I have no idea where he came from. We want to hold on to him for a bit since it is getting very cold here in Jersey. I set up a very nice tank for him, but he doesnt seem very happy. He doesn’t move around much, I’m afraid he might not make it. I have put live crickets in the tank and rocks and have a light for him. I also bought commercial turtle food, but he won’t eat anything. Please help with suggestions! Thank you I really dont want the little (about the size of a quarter)one to die.

    • Eva, here is the contact info for licensed turtle rehabilitators in your area:

      TURTLES
      County Name Phone
      HUNTERDON TRACY LEAVER (908) 730-8300
      MERCER DIANE NICKERSON (609) 883-6606
      WARREN DONNA FOX (908) 835-9991

      and here is the link to the document that lists them all:

      http://www.state.nj.us/dep/fgw/pdf/rehab_species.pdf

      Best of luck to you and the little turtle!

      • Eva:

        He actually seems to be adjusting abit, he is starting to move around and not just hide. Hopefully, he will start eatting soon, we also gave him a worm which seemed to get his interest alittle. We’ll see.

    • Ray:

      hi eva for your turtle to get better you should take him out of your basement and put him in your room with sunlight

  • Eva:

    Hi Amber—Just wanted to let you know made some changes in the little ones tank, and he is just fine now. Thanks

  • Yosista:

    Not to keep any el crappo alive, but BRAVO AJ and Jason! ‘Nuff said, I know, but well done guys!

  • Jeramy:

    Earlier today a neighborhood kid brought me a lethargic baby snapping turtle (I am fairly well known in the neighborhood as “turtle guy” as I have two beautiful painted turtles already). I ALMOST labeled it as an alligator snapper but with my research I identified it as a common snapper– it has the white spots on the plastron, has a definitive ridge down it’s tail, and doesn’t have the four smaller scales on it’s dorsal carapace). I am not sure if it’s a birth defect or a very-early-life injury, but one eye is sunk in and doesn’t open. I do not think it will survive in the wild being in the condition it’s in, so I guess I’ve added another turtle to my family!

  • baby chelydra serpentina

  • Rick:

    I know this post is very old. Just wanted to add that the turtle in the photos is 100% a common snapper. The ridges have nothing to do with it. The babies all have them. But look at the head. Alligator snappers have a very unique mouth. It looks like a bird’s beak almost. I have several alligator snappers and common snappers.

  • Kay:

    Tonight while walking the dogs, I found a baby turtle that looks very much like your turtle picture, Amber. I live in Myrtle Beach, South Carolina, only about a half mile from the beach. I wondered if the little guy I found prefers a salt-water tidal marsh (the direction he was headed) or fresh water (we have a good sized lake nearby). So I brought him home to identify him. Based upon what I’m reading, it seems the lake should be his habitat and not the salt water tidal marsh. I plan to let him go in the morning.

  • Kay:

    P.S. The little guy I found also was in the road. Thank goodness one of the dogs spotted him, or he might have been squished by a car tire.

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