By Monica Macoubrie, Outdoor Educator
In the United States, biologists recognize three snapping turtle species — the common snapping turtle, native to Nebraska, the alligator snapping turtle and the Suwannee alligator snapping turtle, which is native to the southeastern portion of the United States. Both species of alligator snapping turtle are not found in Nebraska, yet common snapping turtles and the two alligator snapping turtles are distant cousins and look oddly similar to each other. Upon further inspection, however, you’ll notice some pretty striking differences.
The carapace, or the top of the shell, of the alligator snapping turtle is more like that of a cactus. This turtle shell has three prominent ridges down the back. These spikes, or projections, really give this animal that prehistoric look. In contrast, the common snapping turtle’s shell is smoother.
On average, an adult common snapping turtle in Nebraska has a shell length of 9-11 inches and weighs less than 50 pounds. However, larger specimens have been observed, including “Big Snap Daddy” at the Schramm Education Center aquarium; he weighs around 100 pounds. Alligator snapping turtles are much larger, though. Typically, this species weighs 175 pounds but can be as much as 250 pounds or more. They are the largest freshwater turtles on the planet.
The Head, Mouth & Face
To start, the common snapping turtle has an oval-shaped head, while the alligator snapping turtle’s head is more triangular-shaped. Both turtles have a beak, made of keratin, with the common snapping turtle having a slight hook to theirs.
Inside their mouths, the alligator snapper has a blood-filled appendage affixed to the animal’s tongue. This appendage is lure-like, mimicking the color, shape and movement of a worm. By wriggling this, and keeping the rest of its body perfectly still, this turtle will draw an unsuspecting fish into its open jaws. Being able to hold its breath for around 50 minutes gives the alligator snapper plenty of patience to outwait their prey and strike when they get within distance.
A surprising feature of the common snapping turtle is the bite force – which is greater than that of their cousin. Common snapping turtles have around 209 Newtons of force, while alligator snapping turtles have a less forceful bite of around 158 Newtons — surprising given their big size difference. To put this in perspective, humans can exert around 1,300 Newtons between our second molars.
Despite their many differences, one similarity pervades. It’s probably not a good idea to be bitten by either one.