Giant Prehistoric Turtle Discovered at Apalachicola!

[dropcap]T[/dropcap]hat headline may be a bit of hyperbole, but we’re excited nonetheless! (We do love our reptiles around here at Apalachicola Riverkeeper). The ‘new’ turtle is the Alligator Snapping Turtle. The largest freshwater turtle in North America, they can grow to be a century old and 200 lbs. And with big ridges going down their backs that make them look like a cross between a modern alligator and a Stegosaurus from the Jurassic age, they’re not only fearsome, but they’re so ugly they’re actually cute. And they really haven’t changed much in about 20 million years, so prehistoric is accurate.

Alligator Snapping Turtles — scientific name Macrochelys temminckii, the first word means ‘big head’ — are found in the southeastern states in rivers that drain into the Gulf of Mexico. Despite their appearance, they’re actually fairly docile, lazing around on muddy river bottoms just waiting for small fish and other unlucky critters to swim by. Then, snapping their heads and scythe-like jaws with astonishing speed and power, anything that swims too close becomes dinner.

So, what’s new about all that, and what’s the discovery? Until recently it was thought that there was just one species of Alligator Snapping Turtle that was found throughout the region. But scientists kept wondering, because the turtles found in far eastern reaches of the region looked just a bit different, with a distinct notch in their shells that others lacked. Years of hard work at research, combined with modern DNA analysis, have now shown the hunch to be correct. There are now not just one but three distinct species of Alligator Snapping Turtle. The most common, found in central and western Gulf rivers, will retain the original names. The most distinctive of the three, found only in the Suwannee River drainage, will be known as the Suwannee Alligator Snapping Turtle, Macrochelys suwannensis. And (drum roll please), would you make welcome the Apalachicola Alligator Snapping Turtle, Macrochelys apalachicolae! We’re so proud!

The sad news is that each of the three separate species is more endangered then the three species were as a group. Habitat loss caused by dams and dredging reduces the area that’s suitable for these bottom-dwellers, making it hard for this modern dinosaur to continue to survive in its eons-old ways. Commercial harvest for export to China has also greatly reduced the numbers of snapping turtles of all types throughout the nation. The state of Florida in 2009 outlawed commercial harvest, so the two new species both have that protection, but the habitat issues are very real.

The Apalachicola River has no dams — it’s free-flowing for its entire 108 miles in Florida — but with every new drought, old plans to build dams and reservoirs seem to re-emerge. The ideas I’ve seen are poorly-conceived environmental disasters just waiting to happen, and would have negative impacts on virtually every significant aquatic species in this part of the Gulf, including all your favorite gamefish. Dams would effectively cut off the “Green River” that flows from the swamps into the Bay and Gulf, and which feeds just about all the fish that we care about.

Dredging of the Apalachicola River ended in 2004, but the environmental damage lives on in the form of severely ‘excised’ channels: deep, narrow, fast water unsuitable for the big snappers. It also lives on in the form of 50 years worth of swamp-clogging dredged-up sand that was never removed, but merely relocated. Commercial barge traffic on the river had all but disappeared years before the dredging was halted — trucks and trains took away the business — yet there are those who seek return the damaging dredge-boats to the river. The turtles hope they fail, and so do I.

The one bright spot on the habitat front is that if the Apalachicola Alligator Snapping Turtle were to become ‘listed’ as threatened or endangered, the dual disasters of damming and dredging would be less likely to pass legal muster. For that, all the creatures that depend on the river and swamps for sustenance would owe a debt to this brand-new, 20-million-year-old reptile. So the next time you see one, say “Thanks,” and give it a kind pat on its big ugly head. On second thought, skip the head-pat, and come away with all your fingers still intact!