North American Alligator Snapping Turtle is Actually Three Different Species

April 25, 2014




The alligator snapping turtle, a beast of a turtle that can weigh more than 200 pounds and live for close to 100 years is no longer a single species, but three, according to researchers from the University of Vermont and the Florida Fish and Wildlife Commission.

 

 

In their paper published in the April edition of Zootaxa, the researchers write that two new species, the Suwannee alligator snapping turtle (Macrochelys suwanniensis), found only in the  Suwannee River that courses through Florida and Georgia; and the Apalachicola alligator snapping turtle (Macrochelys apalachicolae), which inhabits the Apalachicola River in Florida, Georgia, and Alabama. Turtles that reside in river drainages of the Mississippi and Mobile rivers will still be called alligator snapping turtle (Macrochelys temminckii).

 

Alligator snapping turtle

Photo by Garry Tucker/USFWS

The alligator snapping turtle is now three distinct species.

The research was led by Florida Fish and Wildlife Commission scientist Travis Thomas with the genetics work completed by Joe Roman, a conservation biologist at the University of Vermont. They found that the snapping turtles in each river have been isolated for millions of years and do not move from river to river like the common snapping turtle does. The researchers captured turtles in the Gulf Coast region to collect blood samples to extract DNA to show that the turtles were genetically isolated from other populations. They also looked at body shape and size and studied the skulls and shells of museum specimens and found that “each of the three genetically distinct Macrochelys lineages can be diagnosed morphologically,” meaning they can look at the back edge of the shell of the turtles and tell the turtles apart.

 

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Alligator snapping turtles are the largest turtle in North America and the largest freshwater turtle in the world. They are known for their powerful jaw and glacially slow movements. They inhabit river and drainage systems of the Gulf Coast region of the United States and feed on fish, dead animal matter, and small mammals such as muskrats.

 

An abstract of the study can be found on the Zootaxa website.

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