By Whit Gibbons
Can a snapping turtle really bite off a finger? Should anglers be concerned when a big turtle is on the other end of the line instead of a fish?
The underhanded answer, like the one given for many wildlife questions, is “yes” and “no.” But a simple explanation provides clarification.
America’s two largest freshwater turtles are both snappers. They look similar but differ in many ways.
The common snapper has a smoother shell and jagged tail. The alligator snapper has a shell with three ridges and a smooth tail. Another notable difference: an alligator snapper can bite off a finger.
Common snappers can reach 50 pounds, will bite a person in a heartbeat and even leave a memorable scar, but they are small compared to alligator snappers, one of the largest turtles in the world. Adults often weigh over 100 pounds. Occasional size records exceed 200. These giant freshwater turtles get bigger than some sea turtles, making them quite capable of biting off a human body part.
Alligator snappers live in big rivers, large streams, and lakes from Texas to Georgia and reach the Midwest along the river borders of Missouri, Iowa, and Illinois. They not only are capable of amputating human digits but have been documented to do so. Turtles lack teeth, but the cutting edge of the mouth of a massive alligator snapper is a formidable biting tool comparable to heavy- duty loppers.
One confirmed alligator snapper casualty was a commercial turtle trapper in Georgia who now has only nine fingers. Another was a well-publicized incident in Alabama in which an alligator snapper became the focal point of a bar bet: Can you reach into the turtle’s mouth and touch its tongue before its mouth snaps shut?
Who could possibly resist participating in a game of “touch the worm” after a few beers? In the wild, an alligator snapper sits on the river bottom with its mouth open, wiggling its bright red tongue like a worm as a lure for fish, a behavior found in no other turtle in the world. If placed on a bar counter, they will also hold their mouth open and defensively bite whatever enters, including a hand. The loser now has eight fingers.
Another true story was from Louisiana where someone cut open an alligator snapping turtle and found a human finger in its stomach. This may sound like a fish tale told by an angler who hasn’t filled his creel and wants to change the subject.
And why might someone discover a finger in a turtle? Regional culture. Collecting gatorsnappers for personal consumption is legal in Louisiana, and many private citizens make their own turtle stew from these big turtles that once served as a prime source for Campbell’s turtle soup. Louisiana was the last state to place controls on the commercial removal of adult alligator snapping turtles from wild populations, but people are still permitted to catch one for private use.
The possibility of finding a human body part while cutting a turtle open to clean it for the stew pot is not at all out of the question. Why an unidentified finger ended up inside the turtle leaves room for conjecture, but not much imagination is required to speculate on ways a body part might end up inside a turtle in a backcountry Louisiana bayou.
Common snapping turtles, found in every eastern state and most western ones, are often mistaken for their larger cousins and are indeed many times more common. Most people who report seeing an alligator snapper have actually encountered a common snapper, an understandable error as both look fearsome common snappers will stand their ground and have a lightning fast strike. Being bitten by a large common snapper does indeed hurt and can leave a scar. But the jaw muscle strength and severing edge cannot compare with an adult alligator snapper.
Alligator snapper numbers in the wild are only a small percentage of what they once were, due in part to relentless unregulated trapping in the past and the continuing loss of suitable wildlife habitat. Even with protection in most states, their numbers are still declining in some areas. Alligator snapping turtles are fast disappearing but remain one of America’s most magnificent reptiles, even though human fingers may not be safe around them.
Don’t touch the worm! The alligator snapper is the only turtle in the world to wiggle its tongue in front of fish as a lure. A finger is equally vulnerable when the jaws snap shut.
COMMON SNAPPING TURTLE
Whit Gibbons is Professor Emeritus of Ecology, University of Georgia, and author of more than a dozen books on reptiles, including Their Blood Runs Cold: Adventures with Reptiles and Amphibians. His most recent book is Snakes of the Eastern United States. Whit is a member of the Southeastern Outdoor Press Association.