Although most folks are familiar with the Common Snapping Turtle (Chelydra serpentina), few except experienced fisherman and river rats have encountered alligator snappers (Macrochelys spp.). By comparison, Common Snappers, although growing very large (up to 15 inches and 40 pounds) are nowhere near as big as larger gator snappers. They also lack the three prominent keels on the upper shell and have eyes positioned on the side of the head such that they are visible from above. The enormously-broad head of the alligator snapper comes with strongly hooked jaws and laterally-positioned eyes, which are not visible from above.
John Jensen, State Herpetologist for the Georgia Department of Natural Resources, has investigated numerous reports of giant “loggerhead turtles” from outside the known range of the alligator snapper, and without fail they proved to be Common Snappers or other turtle species. There are no known introduced populations of alligator snapping turtles.
Also, unlike common snapping turtles, which occasionally cross roads and amble over lawns while moving between wetlands, alligator snapping turtles only leave the water to nest. The species virtually never basks either, and although turtles have to surface every 45 minutes or so to breathe, they do so in sheltered places (e.g., hidden beneath undercut banks and inside large hollow trees). Thus, the presence of the species is not always easy to detect and may be overlooked.
Mike Miller of Rochelle, GA, who has spent many decades exploring the Alapaha, told me that growing up he regularly encountered Common Snappers but never alligator snappers. Then one day, fishing an Alapaha oxbow, that changed.
He said that when he “went to pull his stringer of bream from the water, it felt like it was hung up on a stump. I pulled again, and the form of an enormous (at least 50-pound) turtle emerged from the depths, its jaws firmly latched onto a big bluegill on the end of my six-foot nylon stringer. Now, I am a fairly strong guy, but it took all I could do to pull him up to the bank. Then he clamped down and bit through the nylon, and easing back into the murk, the great turtle disappeared with my fish.”