Alligator Snapping Turtle

Associated Smithsonian Expert: George R. Zug, Ph.D.

Zoologist George Zug takes a break from his fieldwork studying reptiles and amphibians while in Myanmar.

Courtesy of Jeremy Jacobs

Dr. George R. Zug is an emeritus research zoologist in the Department of Vertebrate Zoology at the Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History and one of the world's foremost experts on reptiles and amphibians of the Pacific. His current research focuses on the biology and systematics of Asian and Pacific amphibians and reptiles. He first became interested in herpetology as an undergraduate when a professor asked him to join a herpetological expedition to Cuba [pre-Castro]. He majored in biology at Albright College and then went on to obtain a master's degree in zoology at the University of Florida and a doctorate degree in zoology at the University of Michigan. The thing he likes best about studying reptiles and amphibians is excitement of discovery, whether new species or aspects about a species' biology.

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This image was obtained from the Smithsonian Institution. The image or its contents may be protected by international copyright laws.

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Snapping turtle digging nest hole
Courtesy of David Govonia, via, CC-BY-NC-SA

About Snapping Turtles (Chelydridae): Habitat

Snapping turtles are the raccoons of the turtle world. They are found in just about any type of aquatic habitat, even polluted ones. Their large bodies and powerful, hooked jaws deter most predators from messing with them. Like raccoons, snapping turtles eat just about anything they come across, even ducklings, snakes, and small turtles. Juvenile snapping turtles, with softer bodies and smaller jaws, are more vulnerable and thus more choosy about where they hang out. Many predators, including wading birds and larger snapping turtles, will eat them. The juveniles hide in clumps of aquatic plants, wrapping their extra-long tails around the stems to anchor themselves. Snapping turtles tend to prefer slow-moving water with lots of aquatic vegetation.

Tortoise (Testudo graeca) eating plants
Courtesy of Barbara, via Wikimedia Commons, CC-BY-NC-SA


About Turtles (Testudines): Turtle Feeding

Turtles have no teeth. The most ancient turtle on Earth, Odontochelys, had teeth along the edge of its jaw like ours. But they disappeared during evolution. Modern turtles instead have a jaw covering made of keratin (fingernail material). Its shape varies, depending on diet. Herbivorous turtles, such as tortoises, have serrated jaw coverings for tearing plant material. The jaw coverings of carnivorous turtles, such as snappers, have sharp-edges for cutting. Turtles that have to crush food, such as musk turtles that eat clams, have broad-edged jaw coverings. Some turtles are highly specialized to eat a particular food, but most eat a variety of foods, and many change their diets as they mature. A common pattern is for young turtles to eat more meat, and older turtles to eat more vegetation.