The creature didn’t growl and didn’t need to.
The alligator snapping turtle held menace enough in its massive, gaping jaws, which ended in a sharp beak poised like the fangs of an agitated rattlesnake. Its long, plump claws dug into the sand above thorny, wrinkled skin and a deeply-ridged carapace about the size of a large dinner platter.
Wildlife biologist Eric Munscher has wrangled bigger alligator snappers than the young, 42-pound male he hauled onto land Saturday with help from two assistants. But every one he finds matters, because he’s studying the species in a part of Houston so unlikely it has become the talk of the turtle world.
During the past two years, Munscher and his team have tagged 60 alligator snappers — officially Macrochelys temminckii — in an area no one expected to find them, along a nine-mile stretch of Buffalo Bayou.
Munscher, who leads the Turtle Survival Alliance’s North American Freshwater Turtle Research Group, does not want to reveal exact study locations, to protect what he believes may be the largest population of alligator snapping turtles in Texas, and potentially one of the largest anywhere. And he believes the turtles have survived not in spite of, but because of, their heavily populated, citified surroundings. “They lucked into the whole metro thing,” he said. “It’s a good habitat, surprisingly, with a riparian shelf where females can climb up and lay eggs.”
Buffalo Bayou’s opaque brown waters have long yielded other scary-looking predators, including prehistoric-looking alligator gars and the occasional, actual gator. And there are plenty of other reasons not to swim there, including possible bacterial pollution.
“Nobody in their right mind would think of Buffalo Bayou as a refuge,” said Jordan Gray, a former Houston zookeeper and a collaborator on the study who now works at the Turtle Survival Alliance’s headquarters in Charleston, S.C. “It’s not this pristine habitat like the Upper Trinity River, but that’s what makes it so cool, to find this gem of a population.”
Munscher discovered the bayou’s turtles almost by accident through his day job with SWCA Environmental Consultants, while he was surveying wildlife across one of the city’s large parks. He put out turtle traps near the end of the study, not expecting to find anything special, and was astonished to haul up six alligator snappers.
Those first critters ranged from a 3-pound juvenile to a 96-pound male that could be 80 years old, which suggested an active breeding population.
Munscher contacted Texas Parks & Wildlife, which had not included Harris County in a previous survey of alligator snappers across East Texas, and secured a grant to purchase equipment for a long-term population study in Buffalo Bayou and associated watersheds of Harris and Fort Bend Counties. He is trapping, tagging and releasing turtles at least once a month — a task he plans to continue for 10 years.
“It’s an unheard of study for the species,” he said. “We want to do it because it’s such an unheard of habitat … . If you find a lot of turtles, it means they’re doing pretty well. Nobody’s done anything to them yet; they don’t have a lot of predation going on. We study them over time to see how and why they’re doing so well.”
The largest turtle species in the U.S. and largest hard-shelled turtles in the world, alligator snappers are native to swamps and rivers from Florida to southern Illinois. Experts can’t say how many of them still exist, but they know numbers have declined significantly in the past century, and conservationists have petitioned to have alligator snappers added to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s Endangered Species list.
There’s a lot more, so go read the rest. The last time I blogged about alligator snapping turtles, it was because of a story that painted them as in dire straits as a species. This story is a much more pleasant surprise. I hope Munscher and crew find a thriving population in the Bayou.