Alligator Snapping Turtle, Macrochelys temminckii

The Alligator Snapping Turtle is our largest turtle and primarily occurs in the western third of the state with a few scattered records in central TN.

Description: A very large aquatic turtle (15.0 to 26.0 inches in length) with a long, hooked beak, 3 prominent jagged ridges on the carapace (upper shell), and an extra row of scutes (plates) on each side of the carapace.  Shell color ranges from brown to dark brown.   The plastron (lower shell) is small and cross-shaped.   Young Alligator Snapping Turtles have extremely rough shells and long tails.

Similar Species: Snapping Turtle has a shorter snout without a hooked beak, no extra marginal scutes, and much less conspicuous ridges on the shell.

Habitat: Usually occurs in large and deep bodies of water such as lakes, large rivers, and deep sloughs; often among submerged logs or root snags.

Diet: Primarily feeds upon fish, but also small turtles, snakes, frogs, crayfish, and carrion.

Breeding information: Courtship and breeding occur in the water during the spring.   Females 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.

Status in Tennessee: The Alligator Snapping Turtle is listed as “In Need of Management” by TWRA, and considered rare to 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.

Fun Facts:

  • 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.

Best places to see in Tennessee: Tennessee or Mississippi River drainages.

Alligator Snapping Turtle

TWRA Alligator Snapping Turtle Restoration Project

The Tennessee Wildlife Resources Agency is conducting an Alligator Snapping Turtle Restoration Project in West Tennessee which involves the release of live alligator snapping turtles. Alligator snapping turtles are listed in Tennessee as endangered or threatened species and are illegal to take.

For more information or to report sightings of alligator snapping turtles, contact TWRA at 731-423-5725, or write to 200 Lowell Thomas Dr., Jackson, TN 38301. 

Alligator Snapping Turtle


  • Alligator snapping turtles have three large prominent ridges along the back and a prominently hooked beak. 
  • Often reaches weights in excess of 30 pounds.
  • Alligator snapping turtles have an extra row of scutes (scales) between the outer scale row and the large center scales. 
Common Snapping Turtle


  • Common snapping turtles have a smoother, rounded shell without the three ridges and weakly hooked beak. 
  • Rarely exceeds 30 pounds.
  • Common snapping turtles do not have the extra row of scutes (scales) between the outer scale row and large central scales.