The Beasts Below: My Introduction to Georgia’s River Giant

Authored by Ben Stegenga

The Alligator Snapping Turtle. As a kid, it was one of those species that almost didn’t seem real. I remember seeing photos of specimens almost as large as the men that hoisted them, and documentaries that highlighted their worm-like lingual lures, enticing fish to a swift demise. I longed to see an Alligator Snapping Turtle in the wild for myself, but the more I learned about them, the more I realized just how tough it could be to fulfill that dream. And yet, here I am today, not only having seen them but having had the opportunity to contribute to the knowledge of these turtles in Georgia. There are now three recognized species, and I count myself lucky to have spent time with the easternmost species on three separate occasions, the Suwannee Alligator Snapping Turtle (Macrochelys suwanniensis). Each of those experiences is a moment that will forever be seared into my memory, but my very first encounter, my introduction to the world of Macrochelys, is one that rivals any of my other most cherished wildlife encounters.

Ben Stegegna

In June of 2016, my colleague, Dirk Stevenson was set to meet with a Georgia Department of Natural Resources staff member, Matt Elliot, to set several hoop traps in a South Georgia river, and he had invited long-time Orianne volunteer, Rob Richie, and I to join him. Earlier in the year a large Alligator Snapping Turtle had been reported on this property, and we were hoping to confirm the species’ presence, as it would be a notable range extension. We wrapped up a weekend citizen science event on Sunday afternoon and immediately hit the road to meet with Matt. We met Matt at the entrance to the property, and he escorted us to the general area where the turtle was sighted. It was the base of a sandhill ridge, paralleling the river, not the place you’d expect to see a turtle so ill-equipped for life on land. Adult female Alligator Snappers are generally the only individuals that ever leave the water, and that is for the sole purpose of laying eggs. So we assumed that the previous report was a female in search of a nest site. With that fresh in our minds, we stepped out of the trucks, only to set our eyes on the unmistakable remnants of turtle eggs along the sand road. We assumed a predator had sniffed out and dug up the nest. Within a few minutes, we had discovered egg shells from several excavated nests. We couldn’t be positive these were Macrochelys nests, but you better believe it raised the level of excitement in the group. We eagerly unloaded four hoop traps from the truck along with all the accompanying weights, rope, and bait, and began making our way down the steep wooded slope towards the river. While pushing through the undergrowth, someone remarked just how incredible it would be to witness an Alligator Snapper making that ascent from the river.

Houston Chandler

Once at the water’s edge, Dirk immediately pointed out a spot he thought looked ideal for a trap. It was directly out from what looked like an undercut bank with lots of protruding tree roots. There was an old treefall in the water nearby, providing a structure that he thought Snappers would find appealing. After agreeing on the first trap location, we dispersed in either direction looking for equally suitable trap sites. It was summer, and this particular backwater river system was quite low. In some places it was no longer contiguous or visibly flowing. Instead, we discovered a network of narrow oxbow lakes. It didn’t take long before we had selected a handful of potential locations.

Next came the fun part. Typically, these large 4 foot diameter hoop traps would be set from a small boat, making setting and checking traps relatively easy. However, the water was far too low in places to successfully navigate this river with a boat.This meant that we had to get in the water to place the traps. To the uninitiated, this may sound like a simple task; however, the dark, tea-colored water conceals many fiendish obstacles.

Alligator Snapping Turtle Even getting into the water can be a challenge. When taking that first step, you never can quite tell if the water off the bank is knee deep or over your head. Plus, the banks are often a network of tree roots overhanging the water, and it’s always a gamble when trusting them to support your weight. On several occasions, I broke through the lattice of roots and ended up armpit deep in roots and grasping at anything to stop my descent.

Once the traps were baited with Dirk’s special recipe of tilapia fillets and sardines, we carried them out into the channel and extended the collapsed trap into the deeper water with the mouth facing away from the bank. Countless branches and logs had to be navigated and moved to allow for an unobstructed set, and you could always count on the trap’s netting to snag on some unseen object under the dark water. At this point, we would dive and untangle the trap solely by feel. Once a trap was where we wanted it, a rope at the back end was tied off to a tree trunk or root on the bank to prevent the trap from drifting or being moved. Securing it in this manner also kept a small portion of the trap above the surface of the water, allowing anything caught inside it to reach the surface to breathe.

The final step was to place the anchor that should keep the trap taut and the funnel entrance open. Our anchors of choice were old railroad tie plates. It was comical to watch Dirk submerge and resurface like a fisherman’s bobber as he struggled to paddle the weight into the open water and secure it on a submerged log. But then it was my turn to set a weight, and Dirk’s turn to laugh. Only a few strokes in, I began to fully appreciate the challenge of keeping your head above water while carrying an extra 20 pounds. In the center of the channel, I found a submerged log to perch on while I set the anchor. Dirk then pointed out that my commotion had attracted a pod of small alligators, each one less than three feet long. They were all at a distance, but watching me with great interest. I decided to test their boldness and tickled the surface of the water with my finger, mimicking the movement of a struggling insect or fish popping the surface. They locked on to the source of the ripples and advanced several yards, before stopping about ten feet away. They wanted to investigate, but they weren’t too sure about the big bearded head that was sticking out of the water near the ripples. I now had little gators on all sides, staring me down. I tickled the water a few more times, but they were too nervous to get any closer. I quickly set the anchor and returned to shore. With all the traps in place, we made the trek back up the hill to our trucks.

Collecting Data On the drive out, we spotted a small tributary and decided to set a few small wire turtle traps in hopes that we might catch juvenile Macrochelys. Satisfied with our hard work and sporting our swampy, fish oil cologne, we headed into civilization in search of dinner and some lodging.

The following morning we rose at daybreak, jittery with anticipation. It was a gray, cloudy morning…one of those mornings where you expect the sky to unleash a deluge at any moment. With coffee and our hotel breakfasts in hand, we jumped in our vehicles and drove to the trap site. Jacob Barrett, of The Orianne Society’s land management team, met us there at the gate. We figured we’d start small and work our way up, so we checked the wire traps first. We struck out on Alligator Snappers, but we caught several handsome Loggerhead Musk Turtles (Sternotherus minor), and Dirk retrieved a trap with a large Greater Siren (Siren lacertina). I find both of these species particularly cool, so I was far from disappointed. And Dirk thought the Loggerhead Musk Turtles might be a county record, so we went about getting some voucher photos.

With the rain beginning to fall we jumped back into our trucks and drove to the main event. No amount of rain could dampen our excitement. We quickly slipped through the thick vegetation and down the hill to our traps. Jacob and Rob were first to arrive at a trap. As they examined the trap they spotted some movement and the flash of turtle feet and plastron as it released its grip on the side of the netting. “We got one!” they shouted. I almost couldn’t believe it. We had an Alligator Snapper in the first trap! Jacob got down into the water to help pull the trap to the bank in a way that prevents the turtle from slipping back out the mouth of the trap. This is definitely the most dangerous part of trapping these turtles. It’s hard to see even a large turtle in the trap while it’s below the tannin-stained water, so one has to be extra careful to avoid contact with the sides of the trap while navigating the neck-deep water. Those powerful jaws would have little problem latching on to an absent-mindedly placed hand or leg through the side of a trap. Jacob located the submerged mouth of the trap and swung that end back towards land, ensuring our prize was not escaping, and then together we pulled the entire trap up the steep bank.

What we saw left us almost speechless.Alligator Snapping Turtle It was a gorgeous 35 pound Suwannee Alligator Snapping Turtle, and for Jacob, Rob, and I, our first. Now 35 pounds is relatively small for this species, but at that size, it still puts most North American turtles to shame. It laid there beneath the netting gaping at us, but not actually snapping or lunging like Common Snapping Turtles often do when they feel vulnerable or threatened. Dirk told us he would move the turtle to a good place for data collection while we checked the other traps, so the three of us made a beeline for the second trap.
As we approached, we all saw the entire trap bob in the water, then fall still. Our minds flashed back to the alligators we saw the other day. “Maybe we caught a larger gator?” We stared silently at the trap, waiting for more movement and maybe a clue as to what it held. After about 20 seconds it bobbed again! Whatever we had was hugging the bottom of the trap and yet big enough to move the whole thing! It could only be one of two things, an alligator or a really big turtle. In the same manner as before, we began bringing the trap back towards dry land, and slowly a figure began to materialize below the surface. The silhouette was unmistakable. We had a second Macrochelys, and boy was this one big! We all realized it at the same time and erupted into a chorus of celebratory shouts and frenzied high-fives. “We got another one…it’s huge!” we shouted back to Dirk. It took all three of us to pull the trap up the bank over the ever-troublesome web of roots. Once on land, we paused to catch our breath and to take everything in. With the rain beating down on our heads and smiles beaming from our faces, we gazed upon the 84 pound behemoth, marveling at its size and its prehistoric appearance.

Jacob Barret

Following Dirk’s instructions, we carefully set about freeing the turtles from the traps. Removing the netting from their large claws and the projections on their carapaces was a bit tricky but we managed to do it unscathed. Despite their sheer mass, Alligator Snappers are actually quite easy to work with on land, as they don’t have the agility or hyper defensive dispositions that Common Snappers are known for. As we moved around, you could see their eyes shifting, keeping us in view and then turning their heads to gape at us. But gaping was the extent of their defensive behavior, although we were sure to give their maws a wide berth. Each turtle was photographed as best as we could manage in the pouring rain, and then we took a few measurements and noted any unique scars and scoring on each turtle’s shell. We hypothesized that these old marks were caused by alligators which may have attempted to make a meal out of these turtles many years ago. It made us think what incredible survivors these turtles had to be, and oh what stories his life could tell. He started life many years ago at just a few inches long but somehow managed to elude the many dangers of a South Georgia river for decades. Now at his massive size, the only danger he has to worry about is humans. Luckily for him, he will likely live out the rest of his days unnoticed by the world above. We all took a few steps back and watched in awe as this giant slowly stood up, walked to the water, and descended back into his dark domain.

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