When the U.S. Army Corp of Engineers received photos of what they thought was an alligator snapping turtle on Center Hill Lake, they quickly called Putnam County wildlife officer, Mike Beaty. Beaty, like all TWRA officers, holds a degree in wildlife and fisheries management and was quick to use his knowledge. He knew this was a species of greatest conservation need (GCN) in Tennessee and he quickly met the Corp and contacted his colleague TWRA, Region 3 wildlife diversity biologist, Chris Simpson.
Alligator snapping turtles are found primarily west of the Tennessee River in West Tennessee, with a few occurrences that stretch along the Cumberland River system. Populations declined because of over-harvesting for consumption prior to protection. TWRA, Region 1 has been working with this species since the 1990’s with restorative efforts continuing today. The most recent sighting outside its current range occurred in Davidson County in 2016.
Alligator snapping turtles prefer slow moving waters with soft substrate. These turtles are not as long lived as other large turtles such as ocean turtles. Males live an average of 26 years and females live an average of 23 years (Niemiller, Reynolds, Miller, 2013). The alligator snapping turtle is the largest turtle in Tennessee with an average carapace length of 20-24 inches.
Wildlife diversity biologist, Chris Simpson gathered data from the Center Hill Lake alligator snapping turtle, which included a carapace measurement of 19 and a half inches and an overall length of 48 inches. The turtle was fairly decayed and could not be weighed. It is thought to be a male. Genetic material was also collected for further analysis.
How the turtle came to be at Center Hill Lake could remain a mystery. Did someone illegally release the turtle and if so when? Center Hill Lake dam was built in 1948. The turtle would not have been in the area prior to the building of the dam. However, this species naturally occurred in the Cumberland River system prior to the building of the dam. Genetic testing might reveal the waterway of origin. For now, the mystery will continue. Simpson stated, “Dealing with these situations and cataloging information is truly enjoyable. Any information we can gain on a GCN species is valuable”.
Sightings can be reported by contacting TWRA.
For more information on GCN species, including the alligator snapping turtle visit:http://tnswap.com/. Sightings can be reported by contacting your TWRA regional office.