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Tennessee Wildlife Resources Agency
Ellington Agricultural Center
440 Hogan Road
Nashville, TN 37220
(615) 781-6500
What is happening to the Alligator Snapping Turtle in Tennessee?

The Alligator Snapping Turtle (Macrochelys temminckii) is an apex predator species found in the Mississippi and Tennessee River drainages of Middle and West Tennessee. However, this species may be succumbing to another apex predator: man. These freshwater turtles are declining dramatically throughout their range due to overexploitation for human consumption and habitat loss. In Tennessee, Alligator Snapping Turtles are considered very rare and imperiled and a species of greatest conservation need (GCN).

Sometimes confused with its more common cousin, the Common Snapping Turtle, this species is the only turtle in the world with its own built-in fishing equipment. A fleshy lure located at the bottom of its mouth fools fish into believing the lure is a worm when the turtle opens its jaws and waits.

The Alligator Snapping Turtle (AST) is currently listed as “in need of management” by the Tennessee Wildlife Resources Agency (TWRA). Unfortunately, there is little information available to assess population status and distribution of ASTs in west Tennessee, which presents several problems for developing an effective conservation and management plan within the region.

From 2000 through 2006, the TWRA conducted an Alligator Snapping Turtle restoration project involving the release of adult and juvenile turtles into various watersheds. Since then, there has been limited work done with this species regarding their distribution and population status in Tennessee, leaving the results of reintroduction work unclear.

Beginning in 2016 the TWRA, along with personnel from Southeast Missouri State, the Tennessee Aquarium Conservation Institute, the Nashville Zoo, Cumberland River Aquatic Center and Tishomingo National Fish Hatchery, began a multi-year project to survey the status of the ASTs in west Tennessee and to rear hatchlings for future release. In particular, the partners aim to provide a comprehensive picture of the snappers’ distribution, population assessments of selected drainages, and an assessment of the success of the original reintroduction program.

During 2016, Tishomingo National Fish Hatchery provided 30 hatchling Alligator Snapping Turtles, which are currently being reared at the Nashville Zoo and the Cumberland River Aquatic Center. In 2017, the hatchery provided an additional 300 one-year-old ASTs to be reared at Humboldt Hatchery and the Nashville Zoo for future release.

Initial surveys conducted in 2016 and 2017 have been unsuccessful in locating new populations of Alligator Snapping Turtles; however, there is cause for optimism! New individual occurrences have been verified from Kentucky Lake, Center Hill Lake, Duck River, Cumberland River and Radnor Lake.

Download an AST fact sheet on this reintroduction and monitoring project, illustrated with AST photos from the field and the Tishomingo NFH

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