Alligator Snapping Turtle
Does It Exist Somewhere In the Ocklawaha River Basin or Not?
An Information, Opinion, Photos, & Sources Report
Compiled by Ocklawahaman Paul Nosca
With the assistance of Captain Erika Ritter, Roy R. "Robin" Lewis III, & K. Alwine
Created: 18 December 2011
Revised: 05 May 2015
NOTE: Some of the credible written works by others that are referenced in this report would not be considered peer-reviewed scientific documentation.
Click-on individual photos to enlarge them!
ALLIGATOR SNAPPING TURTLE
Photo above by Ocklawahaman Paul Nosca
SNAPPING TURTLES are occasionally observed along the Ocklawaha River and its side-creeks or tributaries. Almost always the snapper species that is seen will be the strong-swimming, near-the-top-eyed Florida snapping turtle Chelydra serpentina osceola. I last saw a living Florida snapper on 6-25-13. The Florida snapping turtle has a maximum recorded shell length of only about 17 inches (even though its close relative of more northern states and Canada, the common snapping turtle Chelydra serpentina serpentina, has reached about 19 inches for a record shell length).
Florida snapping turtle along the Ocklawaha River photographed 1-20-12 by Captain Erika Ritter.
Note that it has vertical tail spikes (which alligator snapping turtles do not have).
Florida snapping turtle along the Ocklawaha River photographed 2-3-12 by Captain Erika Ritter.
Note that it is near-the-top-eyed above the straight line of the skull top to the nostrils (when viewed from the side).
ALMOST ALWAYS, BUT MAYBE NOT ALWAYS?
The more on-the-side-eyed, much larger ALLIGATOR SNAPPING TURTLE may possibly exist somewhere in the Ocklawaha River basin although official sources claim that it only inhabits north Florida rivers that empty into the Gulf of Mexico. When I first actually read in 2008 about the known range of the alligator snapper in Florida, I was a little bit shocked. I had always believed that they were extremely rare in the Ocklawaha, but I didn't know that they were not supposed to be there at all. For many years I had trusted my 1972 copy of Ecology of the Ocala National Forest for ecological information. Its section on Aquatic Animals described the following on page 149: "The Turtles. Of the many turtles which you may observe, three families are of particular interest because of unusual characteristics. The snapping turtles (family Chelydridae) are harmless, but may become dangerously aggressive when molested or cornered. The snapping turtle (shown at right) on land may actually rise up on his hind legs and lunge forward. The alligator snapping turtle grows to a very large size and is the largest of the fresh water turtles." In addition, Alligator snapping turtle - Macroclemys temmincki [sic] is listed on page 190 in the reptile section of the appendix near the back of this same Ecology of the Ocala National Forest book.
View a photo of a bulldog with an alligator snapping turtle (from north-west Florida) at: http://www.floridamemory.com/items/show/42109
Since 1980, I have happened-up on about as many alligator snapping turtles as Florida or common snapping turtles but I did spend a good chunk of these years canoeing, exploring, and fishing along streams of this state's Big Bend area. In my Tallahassee office cubicle's Wild Florida exhibit, I displayed a 23-inch long by 16-inch wide gator snapper shell (a 7-31-99 discovery of mine) that covered almost half the length of the cabinet-top space that I had available for my outdoors souvenirs. I set-free (alive) an alligator snapping turtle from an un-tended bush-hook in the Ochlockonee River drainage plus performed my own catch and release of a bottom-crawling, relatively small alligator snapper that I caught there while rod and reel bait-fishing for channel catfish. Ocklawahaman has dined on Florida snapping turtle (taken from the southern Withlacoochee River) but I've never eaten or killed an alligator snapping turtle from anywhere.
Alligator snapping turtles do officially inhabit the nearby Suwannee River basin (including its tributary Santa Fe River basin) which does discharge into the Gulf. Pritchard (1989) wrote about the reporting of at least eight alligator snappers from the upper Santa Fe River between the SR-241 Bridge and Brooker. This segment of the Santa Fe is many miles upstream of O'Leno State Park (which is where that river disappears underground into a sinkhole and is then separated by a 3-mile natural bridge from the lower Santa Fe, downstream, that eventually flows into the Suwannee River). Upstream of Brooker on the upper Santa Fe are the Santa Fe Lakes.
In north-east Alachua County the extreme headwaters of the Santa Fe River drainage and the Orange Creek drainage (an Ocklawaha River tributary) somewhat mingle with each other at Florida's Atlantic Ocean/Gulf of Mexico Eastern Continental Divide line in that area.
According to the USGS Orange Creek at Orange Springs, FL gage webpage: "Records include some flow diverted, during periods of high stages, from Santa Fe Lake in Suwannee River basin through Lochloosa Creek." http://waterdata.usgs.gov/fl/nwis/uv/?site_no=02243000&PARAmeter_cd=00065,00060
Similar wording is found on the webpage for the Santa Fe River at Worthington Springs, Fla USGS gage: "Records do not include diversions during periods of high stages from Santa Fe Lake to Lochloosa Creek in St. Johns River Basin."
This mingling (man-made or natural) of Gulf-destined and Atlantic-destined waters may help to explain how alligator snapping turtles -- although extremely few and far between -- seem to be present in the Ocklawaha basin. But traveling from Santa Fe Lake to the Ocklawaha River itself would be an extremely difficult journey for the alligator snappers to complete! The gator snappers would have to travel downstream during extended periods of extreme high water from the uppermost reaches of Lochloosa Creek through Lake Lochloosa, then through Lochloosa Slough into Orange Creek (or through Cross Creek into Orange Lake then into Orange Creek), and thence through part of Rodman Reservoir into the mainstream Ocklawaha River.
Another plausible explanation would be that the Okefenokee Swamp (which also contains part of the Eastern Continental Divide) is the ultimate headwater of both the Suwannee River (which empties into the Gulf) and the St. Marys River (that runs into the Atlantic only some 20 miles north of the mouth of the St. Johns). Alligator snapping turtles, however, are not included on any list that I've seen of the reptiles present in the St. Marys River basin.
Of course a third possibility that might logically be reckoned is that people may have introduced a small number of gator snappers into the Ocklawaha system at some point in time and the big turtles, native to other parts of Florida, found this valley survivable. In the past there may have been some adult escapees from Ross Allen's Reptile Institute at Silver Springs plus its gift shop reportedly sold live baby alligator snapping turtles pets. Maybe a colony consisting of several of these escaped zoo specimens and/or released pets began and the males were able to find females. It has been common in Florida for breeding populations of imported exotics to begin like this. Or sadly perhaps, one or a small number of the long lived gator snappers may have been roaming the Ocklawaha for many years vainly seeking brief companionship with the opposite sex of their own species? The Ocklawaha River upstream of the CR-316 Eureka Bridge could be regarded as somewhat alligator snapping turtle friendly because the use of commercial fishing devices such as bush-hooks or trotlines has been illegal here for many years (possibly decades). A rod and reel angler really has little chance of reeling-in a gator snapper on the catfish outfits generally used in this area.
Occasionally there are verified reports of alligator snapping turtle sightings from outside of their official range in Florida. See the excerpts (plus online link) from the 1-1-98 Lakeland newspaper article (further below in this report) about the catch of an alligator snapper from the Alafia River near Mulberry in Polk County, Florida.
My first Ocklawaha basin observation of a gator snapper was in the 1980's during a canoeing expedition through the uppermost un-channelized wilderness portion of Orange Creek between CR-21 (at Orange Springs west of Rodman Reservoir) and US-301 (at the eastern edge of Orange Lake). I last -- but with great certainty -- saw live Ocklawaha River alligator snapping turtles near Eureka on 8-7-07 and 7-9-07. These 2007 sightings probably involved the same alligator snapper as they were within 100 feet of each other. I was after longnose gar both of those days with a gig and/or snatch-hook rigs -- a dirty job wrestling 4-foot long toothy gar into a canoe all by myself and I didn't want to carry all of my usual gear (including the camera) with me. Both days, I was able to affectionately give what appeared to be a 20 to 22-inch carapace (top shell) length alligator snapping turtle a gentle love tap with the edge of my 4.5-foot long canoe paddle blade, on the top of its shell and head. Try this with a Florida snapper as they will live-up to their name! I was that close to this quite vulnerable approximately 50-pound snapper that was crawling through shallow water. I enjoy seeing alligator snappers and do not try to hurt them. My hands still retain 10 fingers total as I have never encountered a really aggressive gator snapper yet. An Ocklawaha basin alligator snapping turtle is an extreme rarity for me to observe, happening much more rarely than viewing a bobcat, black bear, or manatee during a day of canoeing or hiking along this river -- in fact almost as rare as ever seeing whooping cranes or a Florida panther (both of which I have observed in the adjacent Ocala National Forest) -- or very sadly never actually seeing an ivory-billed woodpecker so far!
A near record length (for this species) Florida snapping turtle 17-inch shell (carapace) from the Eureka area of the Ocklawaha.
An anecdotal encounter with an alligator snapping turtle in the Ocklawaha basin has been reported to me by a very credible and well educated person. This lady remembers seeing an alligator snapper in the 1980's (or early 1990's) in the spillway below the Orange Lake dam which is located on the east side of the US-301 Orange Creek Bridge. She was gigging gar with her ex-husband at the time in this uppermost area of Orange Creek. They saw an upside-down gar moving sideways in the shallow, frothing water -- held in the jaws of a seemingly 2-ft wide, huge alligator snapping turtle that was crawling among the big rocks there.
Snapping turtle shells and skull parts collected in the past from the Eureka area are being shown to me by others for positive identification. So far, however, all of these remains have proven to be from Florida snapping turtles.
These 3 photos by Ocklawahaman are of the top part of a 6-in. length Florida snapping turtle skull.
It was found in the Eureka area of the Ocklawaha basin several years ago and was presented recently to Ocklawahaman.
The shell (carapace) was not available but a 6-in. length skull would equal to about a 15.25 to 15.5-in. length shell.
For a comparison click-on this link http://www.paleodirect.com/pgset2/tur001.htm
The bottom-walking (seldom-swimming), usually submerged (out-of-sight) alligator snapping turtle is North America's largest freshwater turtle and can live beyond 50 years. Males may weigh up to 250 lbs with a 31-in long carapace (top part of shell) and rarely ever leave the water. The smaller females (to about 50-lbs or so) are occasionally seen while traveling out of the water during the performance of their egg-laying duties. Some of the available literature suggests that gator snappers, to avoid as many clumsy swimming trips to the surface as possible, utilize shallow submerged structure like brush or rock piles, downed trees, and weed beds as concealed air-snorkeling perches. These extremely aquatic and nocturnal (and almost always hidden to human-view) turtles still need to breath air up to twice per hour. Documentation also implies that permanent deep water should be in close proximity to high and dry (above the floodplain) stream banks to facilitate the nesting part of the alligator snapper's reproductive process. My own observations of gator snappers out of the water confirms this premise. Three other water systems where I have also viewed alligator snapping turtles are Florida's Ochlockonee River and Wacissa River plus Oklahoma's Blue River.
Documenting the existence of alligator snapping turtles in the Ocklawaha River basin is quite a difficult task for Ocklawahaman to perform. Gator snappers are very secretive by nature and are probably extremely rare in this valley. Whenever I next happen-up on one, I hope to collect some good photos or even some video of the event along with a bit of identifiable landscape proof in the background. I am also attempting to gather other Ocklawaha River system evidence about them including shell or skull remains, eye-witness reports or photos, plus any newspaper or other written accounts. This webpage will be updated from time to time for accuracy, better grammar, and as I discover additional information about these so far unclaimed and undocumented Ocklawaha-dwelling reptilian rarities.
A Florida snapping turtle 14-in length shell (carapace) with 5.5-in length skull from the Eureka area of the Ocklawaha.
This is a smaller-size skull than the specimen in the 3 other photos above.
The alligator snapper is an ancient, interesting, rarely seen, and native former species of special concern in Florida. Any population of them that occurs in the Ocklawaha system certainly deserves the recently enacted state-wide regulations that provide alligator snapping turtles complete protection from any form of human predation. Click-on the following link: http://www.eregulations.com/florida/hunting/nongame-wildlife-regulations/
ALLIGATOR SNAPPING TURTLES:
Do they exist somewhere in the Ocklawaha River basin or not?
THE ANSWER MAY BE AS CLEAR AS MUD!
EXCERPTS FROM SUBJECT-RELATED: ARTICLES, BOOKS, OTHER DOCUMENTS, WEBPAGES, ETC.
Shotts et al. (1972) document (pg. 605):
"Aeromonas hydrophila and Aeromonas shigelloides were associated with mortality among fish, turtles, and alligators of Lake Apopka, Lake and Orange Counties, Florida. Factors predisposing to infection included dutrophication of the lake and low dissolved oxygen content of the water."
"An alligator snapping turtle (Macroclemys temmincki), captured alive and presumed healthy, was necropsied. Purulent material was in the trachea and bronchi. Cultures from this material and from the kidneys yielded A. hydrophila and A. shigelloides."
Pritchard (1989) book (pg. 7) about Florida snapping turtle (Chelydra serpentina osceola):
"Pritchard (1980) reported a specimen of C. s. osceola with a carapace length of 43.8 cm and a weight of 21.6 kg." NOTE: 43.8 cm = 17.24-inch carapace length and 21.6 kg = 47.52 pounds.
Pritchard (1989) book (pg. 29, 32 and 60) about alligator snapping turtle (Macroclemys temminckii):
"A juvenile in the Florida State Museum, UF 48437 (preserved as a skeleton and stomach contents), was caught in the Santa Fe River (a tributary of the Suwannee) on 26 August 1980 ca. 300 meters east of SR 241(Alachua/Union County Line)."
"UF 22267 is from the Santa Fe River, near the town of Santa Fe, Alachua County, Florida."
"Earl Moon of the University of Florida caught six to eight Macroclemys on trotlines in the Santa Fe River near Brooker on 14 March 1979. One of these (UF 65903, a large adult) is in the UF/FSM collection."
"There are one or two enigmatic museum specimens from Marion County, south of the known range of the species, e.g., KU 61844 (Oklawaha River, 4 m E Silver Springs). These may derive from escapees from the Reptile Institute at Silver Springs, although AMNH 8287, reportedly from Eureka and now lost (what would one shout if one found it?), was received as long ago as 28 July 1916--before the institute was established. Unless the specimen is found, the possibility of it being a misidentified Chelyndra cannot be dismissed."
NOTE: According to their website (last accessed 2-13-12), the American Museum of Natural History (AMNH) in New York City does have an R-8287 Macroclemys temminckii specimen in their Herpetology Department collection from Marion County, Florida "(28 July 1916), assumed to be date rec'd" which is described of as "Prep Type: fluid."
"Allen and Neill (1950) found that captive specimens in Florida (Marion County) nested from late April to mid-June."
Stockbridge (1992) Ocala Star-Banner newspaper article (7-31-92, pg. 7) about Silver Springs:
"The star of the show is a 30-year Silver Springs veteran, an alligator snapping turtle that weighs more than 100 pounds."
KBN (1996) document (pg. 208) about the Santa Fe River of Alachua County:"SANTA FE RIVER..."
"The two mile stretch above I-75 has a good population of Suwannee cooters (Pseudemys concinna suwanniensis), a good population of alligator snapping turtles (Macroclemys temmincki) at the extreme southeastern edge of their range (Moler, 1996), and is potential limpkin (Aramus guarauna) habitat due to the apple snails there."
DeMott et al. (1997) document (pg. 27):
"Fish and Non-Avian Wildlife Species Observed in the Lake Apopka Marsh Restoration Project (Stenberg et al, 1997)…Alligator snapping turtle...Snapping turtle..."
Palmer (1998) The (Lakeland) Ledger newspaper article (1-1-98, pg. A1 and A10) about the Alafia River alligator snapping turtle:
"Some Mulberry residents made an unexpected find in the aftermath of the acid spill into the Alafia River here."
"They found an alligator snapping turtle, a species that's not supposed to be here and was probably either released or escaped from captivity."
"Tim Williams at Gatorland, an Orlando wildlife attraction that picked up the errant turtle Wednesday, said the reptile would either be put on display or released back into its native habitat in North Florida."
"'It's completely out of its natural range,' Williams said."
"In Florida it is normally found only west of the Suwanee (sic) River. It can grow to as large as 200 pounds. The turtle found near Mulberry weighs an estimated 60 pounds."
"Gatorland's Williams said releases of native and a number of exotic species outside their natural habitats is an increasing problem in Florida."
Clark (2005) Gainesville Sun newspaper article (3-31-05, pg. 18) about Silver Springs:"You don't want to miss the reptile show, where the handler grabs a 130-pound alligator snapper from the bottom of a pond and hoists it out of the water."
Aresco et al. (2006) document (pg. 44, 53, and 54) about the Florida snapping turtle (Chelydra serpentina osceola):
"Species Recognition. -- This large species (maximum size in Florida 42.4 cm carapace length (CL); FLMNH 66157) is recognized by a long tail with a dorsal ridge of large tuberculate scales..." NOTE: 42.4 cm = 16.69-inch carapace length.
"Mechanical removal of organic sediment (“muck”) from lakes and ponds is an established wetland management technique in Florida and is a type of habitat alteration that is a serious threat to C. serpentina populations (Aresco and Gunzburger, 2004). Mechanical muck removal is conducted by the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission (FFWCC) in attempts to enhance sport fisheries and improve boater access, and by local municipalities to increase stormwater capacity of wetlands that serve as stormwater retention ponds in suburban areas. In most cases, the ponds are pumped dry and heavy machinery (large backhoes and bulldozers) remove all organic sediment to a depth at which sand or clay is reached, or much deeper in the case of the stormwater ponds. Organic sediment is either piled on the shore and allowed to dry before transport to off-site landfills or immediately loaded onto trucks as it is removed. In the process, C. serpentina are either killed by suffocation in excavated piles of sediment or crushed by heavy machinery, with virtually no chance to escape (Aresco and Gunzburger, 2004)."
"A series of very large C. s. osceola collected in the 1920s from Lake Apopka, Orange Co. (FLMNH 53698, 66157, 66158; CL’s 40.5, 42.5, and 39.9 cm) suggests the historic presence of large individuals in lake populations that are rarely observed today." NOTE: 42.5 cm = 16.73-inch carapace length.
St. Johns River Water Management District (2008) document (pg. 126):
"Table 5-5: Key Endangered, Threatened and Species of Special Concern of the Lake George Basin... Alligator Snapping Turtle (Macroclemys temmincki)..."
Santa Fe Lake Dwellers Association (2012) "Wildlife In, On, and Around the Lake" webpage about Santa Fe Lake:
"Endangered Species. We have several animal and plant species in our lake area that are 'listed' by state or federal authorities. Among these are the American Alligator, Florida Black Bear, Sherman's Fox Squirrel, Southern Bald Eagle, Flatwoods Salamander, Gopher Tortoise, Wood Stork, Eastern Indigo Snake, Little Blue Heron, and the Alligator Snapping Turtle."
Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission (2013) "A Species Action Plan for the Alligator Snapping Turtle" (pg. 4 and 15):
"There are records of alligator snapping turtles from Eureka and the Ocklawaha River in Marion County that may have been the result of introductions from the Ross Allen’s Reptile Institute at Silver Springs (Krysko et al. 2011)."
"Surveys also are needed to determine whether the Ocklawaha River, a tributary of the St. Johns River, supports a population and to determine if this population is native or introduced."
REFERENCES / SUGGESTED READING
Allen, E. R. and W. T. Neill. 1950. The alligator snapping turtle, Macrochelys temminckii, in Florida. Special Publication No. 4, Ross Allen's Reptile Institute, Silver Springs, FL.
Aresco, M. J.; M. A. Ewert, M. S. Gunzburger, G. L. Heinrich and P. A. Meylan. 2006. Chelydra serpentina - snapping turtle. In: P. A. Meylan (ed.), Biology and Conservation of Florida Turtles, pp. 44-57. Chelonian Research Foundation, Lunenburg, MA.
DeMott, R. P.; H. D. Jones and J. D. Schell. 1997. Environmental risk assessment of a Lake Apopka muck farm wetlands restoration. St. Johns River Water Management District Special Publication SJ98-SP7, 1998. Palatka, FL. http://www.sjrwmd.com/technicalreports/pdfs/SP/SJ98-SP7.pdf Search for alligator snapping turtle (pg. 27).
Florida Department of Natural Resources. 1989. Florida Rivers Assessment. Tallahassee, FL. No Biological Resources listing of alligator snapping turtle for any of the Oklawaha or St. Johns River basin streams or the St. Marys River.
Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission. 2013. A species action plan for the alligator snapping turtle. Tallahassee, FL
Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission. 2011. Alligator snapping turtle biological status review March 31, 2011. Tallahassee, FL. http://myfwc.com/media/1351487/Alligator%20Snapping%20Turtle%20Final%20BSR.pdf
Florida Natural Areas Inventory. 2001. "Alligator snapping turtle Macroclemys temminckii" webpage. Field Guide to the Rare Animals of Florida. Florida Natural Areas Inventory, Tallahassee, FL. http://www.fnai.org/FieldGuide/pdf/Macroclemys_temminckii.pdf
KBN, A Golder Associates Company. 1996. Alachua County ecological inventory project. Alachua County Department of Growth Management, Office of Planning and Development, Gainesville, FL. http://www.cityofgainesville.org/LinkClick.aspx?fileticket=za8oPuTsm_M%3D&tabid=244 Search for alligator snapping turtle (pg. 208).
Lane, J. J. and W. A. Mitchell. 1997. Species profile: Alligator snapping turtle (Macroclemys temminckii) on military installations in the southeastern United States. Technical Report SERDP-97-9, U.S. Army Engineer Waterways Experiment Station, Vicksburg, MS.
Palmer, T. 1998. "Snapper surprise: An errant snapping turtle is found in the Alafia River" article (with photos). The (Lakeland) Ledger newspaper (1 January 1998, pg. A1 and A10). Lakeland, FL. Scroll up/down/left/right in the online version of both page A1 and A10 to view all of the article's photos and text.
Pritchard, P. C. H. 1989. The Alligator Snapping Turtle: Biology and Conservation. Milwaukee Public Museum, Milwaukee, Wisconsin. Search for carapace (pg. 7), Santa Fe River (page 29) and Marion County (page 32 and 60).
St. Johns River Water Management District, Wildwood Consulting, Inc. and Lower St. Johns Technical Advisory Committee. 2008. Lower St. Johns River basin surface water improvement (SWIM) plan update. Palatka, FL. http://www.sjrwmd.com/SWIMplans/2008_LSJRB_SWIM_Plan_Update.pdf Search for alligator snapping turtle (pg. 126).
Santa Fe Lake Dwellers Association. 2012. "Wildlife in, on, and around the lake" webpage. Santa Fe Lake Dwellers Association website, Melrose, FL. http://www.lakesantafe.org/FloraandFauna.php
Shotts, E. B.; J. L. Gaines, L. Martin and A. K. Prestwood. 1972. Aeromonas-induced deaths among fish and reptiles in an eutrophic inland lake (Lake Apopka). Journal of the American Veterinary Medical Association. 161:603-607. http://pdf.usaid.gov/pdf_docs/PNAAA626.pdf Search for alligator snapping turtle (pg. 605).
Snedaker, S. C. and A. E. Lugo. 1972. Ecology of the Ocala National Forest. U.S. Forest Service, U.S. Department of Agriculture. Contract No. 38-1969. Search for alligator snapping turtle (pg. 149 and 190).
Stockbridge, D. 1992. "Travel: Stay in central Florida for summer vacations; Central Florida theme parks; Silver Springs" article. Ocala Star-Banner newspaper (31 July 1992, pg. 7), Ocala, FL. http://news.google.com/newspapers?id=5NBPAAAAIBAJ&sjid=agcEAAAAIBAJ&pg=4320,7625284&dq=alligator-snapping-turtle+florida&hl=en
REFERENCE AS: Nosca, P. 2015. "Alligator snapping turtle: Does it exist somewhere in the Ocklawaha River basin or not?" webpage report. "Ocklawahaman" website. Paul Nosca, Eureka, FL. https://sites.google.com/site/ocklawahaman/alligator-snapping-turtle