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alligator snapping turtle

The dino turtles of Buffalo Bayou

I love this story.

The creature didn’t growl and didn’t need to.

The alligator snapping turtle held menace enough in its massive, gaping jaws, which ended in a sharp beak poised like the fangs of an agitated rattlesnake. Its long, plump claws dug into the sand above thorny, wrinkled skin and a deeply-ridged carapace about the size of a large dinner platter.

Wildlife biologist Eric Munscher has wrangled bigger alligator snappers than the young, 42-pound male he hauled onto land Saturday with help from two assistants. But every one he finds matters, because he’s studying the species in a part of Houston so unlikely it has become the talk of the turtle world.

During the past two years, Munscher and his team have tagged 60 alligator snappers — officially Macrochelys temminckii — in an area no one expected to find them, along a nine-mile stretch of Buffalo Bayou.

Munscher, who leads the Turtle Survival Alliance’s North American Freshwater Turtle Research Group, does not want to reveal exact study locations, to protect what he believes may be the largest population of alligator snapping turtles in Texas, and potentially one of the largest anywhere. And he believes the turtles have survived not in spite of, but because of, their heavily populated, citified surroundings. “They lucked into the whole metro thing,” he said. “It’s a good habitat, surprisingly, with a riparian shelf where females can climb up and lay eggs.”

Buffalo Bayou’s opaque brown waters have long yielded other scary-looking predators, including prehistoric-looking alligator gars and the occasional, actual gator. And there are plenty of other reasons not to swim there, including possible bacterial pollution.

“Nobody in their right mind would think of Buffalo Bayou as a refuge,” said Jordan Gray, a former Houston zookeeper and a collaborator on the study who now works at the Turtle Survival Alliance’s headquarters in Charleston, S.C. “It’s not this pristine habitat like the Upper Trinity River, but that’s what makes it so cool, to find this gem of a population.”

[…]

Munscher discovered the bayou’s turtles almost by accident through his day job with SWCA Environmental Consultants, while he was surveying wildlife across one of the city’s large parks. He put out turtle traps near the end of the study, not expecting to find anything special, and was astonished to haul up six alligator snappers.

Those first critters ranged from a 3-pound juvenile to a 96-pound male that could be 80 years old, which suggested an active breeding population.

Munscher contacted Texas Parks & Wildlife, which had not included Harris County in a previous survey of alligator snappers across East Texas, and secured a grant to purchase equipment for a long-term population study in Buffalo Bayou and associated watersheds of Harris and Fort Bend Counties. He is trapping, tagging and releasing turtles at least once a month — a task he plans to continue for 10 years.

“It’s an unheard of study for the species,” he said. “We want to do it because it’s such an unheard of habitat … . If you find a lot of turtles, it means they’re doing pretty well. Nobody’s done anything to them yet; they don’t have a lot of predation going on. We study them over time to see how and why they’re doing so well.”

The largest turtle species in the U.S. and largest hard-shelled turtles in the world, alligator snappers are native to swamps and rivers from Florida to southern Illinois. Experts can’t say how many of them still exist, but they know numbers have declined significantly in the past century, and conservationists have petitioned to have alligator snappers added to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s Endangered Species list.

There’s a lot more, so go read the rest. The last time I blogged about alligator snapping turtles, it was because of a story that painted them as in dire straits as a species. This story is a much more pleasant surprise. I hope Munscher and crew find a thriving population in the Bayou.

The dino turtle

Please don’t go extinct.

The extremely rare, utterly impressive and scary looking alligator snapping turtle is actually even more rare than first thought, according to a study out of Florida this week.

Researchers in in the sunshine state have found that the scaly creature, once common to Houston, is actually just one of three different kinds of the turtles.

Until this week the species has been collectively known as macrochelys temminckii and nicknamed the ‘dinosaur of the turtle world’ because of it’s fiercesome look and massive size. It can reach up to 200 pounds in weight.

Now two new species names have been added after scientists found distinct differences between the turtles that have grown up in river systems across the Gulf states.

The new study looked at data from turtles still in the wild as well as fossils that date back 15-16 million years and determined the turtles developed differently according to their geographical placing.

[…]

It means that the few who still live in East Texas are the last remaining of their kind, with just close relatives living across state lines, rather than direct decsendents.

A figure for how many of these prehistoric-looking beasts remain does not exist. Their shy nature and nocturnal lifestyle make it almost impossible to count them.

Some estimate the Suwannee still has around a 1000 of them but that figure could be much lower in East Texas and Louisiana because of the love of local populations for turtle soup.

“Whenever the (federal authorities) banned sea turtles from harvest, all the people, especially in New Orleans, who wanted turtle soup, turned to freashwater turtles,” said Thomas, “That was alligator snapping turtles, they hit them hard and they hit them hard in a short amount of time.”

I’m sorry, but a magnificent creature like this deserves a better fate than being wiped out by foodies. They’re not currently listed as endangered, but perhaps this re-classification will cause a review of that. At the very least, chefs ought to find more plentiful turtles to use in their soup.