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A Tale of Two Snapping Turtles

Updated: Jul 13, 2021

You may have heard that a snapping turtle has a powerful bite. So much so that it’s a good idea to keep your distance if you see one in the wild. But did you know that there are two different kinds of snapping turtles?

A common snapping turtle. (Photo via Shutterstock)

In fact, the entire world is home to just two species of snapping turtles: common snapping turtles and alligator snapping turtles. Both live in Illinois. Even though both species live in the state, the odds are if you've seen one, it's a common snapping turtle.

How can we be so sure? First, because alligator snapping turtles live mainly in the southeastern United States. Their range does extend into southern Illinois, but they do not live as far north as Will County. That means if you see a snapper in our area, it's a common snapping turtle.

As their name implies, common snapping turtles are quite common. On the other hand, alligator snapping turtles are rare across most of their range. In fact, alligator snappers are listed as threatened or endangered in most of the states where they live. In Illinois, the alligator snapping turtle is one of five turtles listed as endangered. The others are Blanding's turtles, spotted turtles, yellow mud turtles and river cooters.

Physically, it is easy to tell the difference between a common snapper and an alligator snapper. That’s because alligator snapping turtles look prehistoric, with large spikes on their shells and primitive faces. Meanwhile, common snapping turtles have smooth shells.

Alligator snapping turtles are also quite a bit bigger than common snapping turtles. In fact, they are the largest freshwater turtles in the world. Male alligator snapping turtles typically weigh about 175 pounds, although they can weigh as much as 220 pounds. Females are much smaller, weighing about 50 pounds. Common snapping turtles typically only weigh between 10 pounds and 35 pounds.

Both kinds of turtles live long lives for wild animals. Common snapping turtles can live about 30 years, and alligator snapping turtles live between 10 and 45 years. They both will live much longer in captivity than in the wild.

Both kinds of snapping turtles spend almost their entire lives in water, and females come on land to build nests and lay eggs. Alligator snapping turtles live in fresh water, and they usually remain in the deepest water in their habitat area. Common snapping turtles usually live in fresh water but will also live in brackish water, which is a combination of fresh water and saltwater found in coastal areas. They prefer muddy-bottomed waters because it is a good place to hide.

Snapping turtles are most well-known for their strong bites. Common snapping turtles have an average bite force of about 209 Newtons of force, while alligator snapping turtles have a little less forceful bite, averaging about 158 Newtons of force. How does that compare to your bite? Surprisingly, humans can exert 1,300 Newtons of force between their second molars.

Still, though, a snapping turtle's bite shouldn't be underestimated. Their bite is strong enough to break through bone. And because snapping turtles are aggressive, they should never be handled.

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