Buffalo Bayou an unlikely hotbed for alligator snapping turtles
What’s lurking in the muddy brown waters of Houston’s bayous?
Alligator gars, yes, and the occasional, actual alligator.
But researchers were astonished recently to discover what may be a robust population of a threatened species that was not known to exist in the city’s waterways: Alligator snapping turtles.
To date, wildlife biologist Eric Munscher and his team from the Turtle Survival Alliance have tagged 60 of the fearsome looking creatures in Buffalo Bayou during the early stages of a study that will last a decade. To date, they’ve found the turtles in sizes ranging from small juveniles to a 132-pounder that could be 80 years old. (Alligator snappers can live to be about 150.)
The largest turtles in the U.S., they are an ancient and unique species with an important ecological function. While they also eat live fish, they scrub riverbed floors of carrion — making them the vultures of the deep.
And they don’t have to float and sun themselves to raise their body temperature for food digestion, like other turtle species. The females come to land to lay eggs, but the secretive males spend their entire lives underwater, only poking their snouts above the surface once an hour or so to breathe.
In spite of their fierce looks, alligator snappers are timid and will flee disturbances in the water — until someone tries to touch them. Which could be problematic: The massive jaws of a large male can inflict as much as 1,200 pounds of bite pressure.