Rare alligator snapping turtle weighs more than 120 pounds

An alligator snapping turtle weighing more than 120 pounds and estimated to be more than 100 years old is now on display at the Kansas Department of Wildlife and Parks Pratt Education Center, 2 miles east and 1 mile south of Pratt. The massive reptile was given to the education center by Travis Taggart, associate curator of herpetology at the Sternberg Museum of Natural History in Hays.

Taggart obtained the large male turtle and a smaller female from Kelly Irwin, state herpetologist for Arkansas. The turtles were part of a confiscation of approximately 400 animals from a turtle breeder that failed to comply with Arkansas state regulations. It had been housed at the Sternberg for approximately one year prior to its arrival in Pratt but was not on public display.

Alligator snapping turtles are on the Kansas Species in need of Conservation (SINC) list, with only 12 verifiable recordings in the state. These recordings were all from southeast Kansas and were confined to the Neosho, Verdigris, Walnut, and Arkansas River basins. Alligator snappers are not known to breed in Kansas, and individuals found in the state are considered transient. They favor river habitat with overhead, shaded canopy, lots of tree limb and leaf litter, a muddy bottom, and substantial pools.

The largest specimen from Kansas came from Lyon County in 1967 and had a carapace (upper shell) length of 22 inches. A 59-pound female was found in Montgomery County in 1986. Alligator snappers can grow to tremendous size; the largest known weighed 318 pounds and was caught in Georgia in 1978. There is a 236-pound alligator snapper in captivity at a Chicago zoo.

The alligator snapping turtle on display at the Pratt Education Center is located in an enclosure next to a large common snapping turtle. The common snapper weighed 46 pounds when caught in 2006, making it the largest ever recorded in Kansas. Common snapping turtles can weigh as much as 75 pounds.

The two species can be distinguished by differences in the carapace, which is relatively smooth on the common snapper while the alligator snapper's carapace has three high-ridged rows. There are also differences in head size and shape. Alligator snappers have massive heads, with a large overbite in the form of a hooked beak and somewhat star-shaped eyes. Alligator snappers also have a special adaptation that helps trap prey. A small worm-shaped appendage located on the bottom of the mouth wriggles and draws fish into its waiting open mouth. These differences are readily apparent when observed side-by-side in the displays.

The Pratt Education Center is open to the public from 8 a.m. until 5 p.m. Monday through Friday, with limited Saturday hours in summer.