The term “living dinosaur” seems to have been coined with the alligator snapping turtle in mind. The largest river turtle in North America can reach 200 pounds in weight its reputation for snapping its powerful down on prey lured to its worm-like tongue is well documented. Recently, Travis Thomas, a Florida Fish and Wildlife Commission scientist, and conservation biologist Joe Roman got close enough to them to discover that what was previously thought to be one species is actually three.
Studying live turtles and museum specimens, the researchers used genetics to identify two new species: the Suwannee alligator snapping turtle, which is found only in the Suwannee River in Florida and Georgia, and the Apalachicola alligator snapping turtle, floating in the vicinity of the Apalachicola River in Florida, Georgia, and Alabama.
Roman collected blood samples from the tails located at the safer ends of the turtles and determined that the turtles in each river were genetically distinct from the other. Using the DNA along with skulls and shells from the museum specimens, the team confirmed that “each of the three genetically distinct Macrochelys lineages can be diagnosed morphologically” and reported the results in a recent edition of journal Zootaxa.
What kept the species separated? Here’s what Joe Roman says.
Unlike common snappers, these turtles do not move from river to river; they're isolated and have been for millions of years, through many glacial ages. They hardly ever come onto land, and they don't swim in seawater either.
No longer an ingredient in Campbell’s Turtle Soup, these magnificent and now unique snapping turtles are still rare and petitions have been filed to protect them under the Endangered Species Act. Alligator snapping turtles are so slow-moving that algae grow on their backs. Let’s hope the government moves faster.