On September 12, 2014, North Chagrin Naturalist, Jeff Riebe discovered a turtle that just didn’t quite fit what he would expect to find in the nature center pond. Trapped in the rocky corner, the turtle had been pushed by some heavy rains into the overflow of Sunset Pond, adjacent to North Chagrin Nature Center. The spiked shell, deeply hooked beak and enormous mouth were cues that this was not the native common snapping turtle he would expect to find in the pond.
Notice the pink appendage in the turtle's mouth. This structure looks like a live worm underwater and attracts fish right into the turtle's mouth!
This was a nine pound alligator snapping turtle, the largest freshwater turtle found in North America. Of course, 9 pounds isn’t the largest. It will grow MUCH larger, potentially over 200 pounds. The native home range of this turtle is the deep south and up north into the Mississippi River drainage system.
A comparison between this large and mature, native common snapping turtle (top) and the small and immature non-native alligator snapping turtle (bottom.)
So how did this turtle get here? Alligator snapping turtles are available in the pet trade, and most people who purchase them are not equipped to care for them as they grow larger. The unwanted pets are often dumped in local waterways. It is both illegal and a bad idea to dump animals into Cleveland Metroparks. Dumped pets can suffer from being released into a habitat which they are not well suited. They may not be evolved to cope with harsh winters, unfamiliar food sources and other environmental pressures. Also, the ecosystem they are being released into may be thrown off balance by dumped animals.
Another good comparison between the (left) alligator snapping turtle and the (right) common snapping turtle.
This alligator snapping turtle can now be found residing in North Chagrin Nature Center. Staff is working on a temporary non-native species exhibit that highlights the problem of pet dumping. The alligator snapping turtle will make a good ambassador for this message. If you would like to see this turtle, drop by the nature center on most days and you’ll see it right next to the front desk. The turtle does take occasional days off from public viewing, so call ahead if you are coming specifically to see it.
Naturalist Jeff Riebe takes time to introduce the visiting alligator snapping turtle to crowds of people who have been traveling to North Chagrin Nature Center to see this unique animal.
One of the messages that this turtle will help share is for people to fully research the needs and requirements of an animal before choosing it as a pet.
As a turtle that is most active at night, the alligator snapping turtle will also be making an appearance at Nature at Night on October 18 from 4 - 9 p.m. at River Grove Reservable Picnic Area in North Chagrin Reservation. Stop by the live animal area to get a look at this amazing creature.