Researchers head into West Tennessee in hopes of tracking alligator snapping turtles


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Researchers head into West Tennessee in hopes of tracking alligator snapping turtles to see if it should be on Tennessee’s Endangered Species List
July 1st, 2017, by Kendi A. Rainwater, Times Free Press

Net after net came up empty, dripping with water from a West Tennessee swamp, as researchers looked for alligator snapping turtles.
After hours of hauling and resetting nets from aluminum boats during an excursion in June, researchers with the Tennessee Aquarium
Conservation Institute finally returned to shore with a pair of rare turtles.

Jon Davenport ( ), a scientist with the Tennessee Aquarium and an assistant professor of biology at Southeast Missouri State University, said the prehistoric-looking turtles — estimated to be about 10 years old and around 8 pounds — were the only ones found among the 28 sites searched.

"We were hoping we could come in and show that the turtles are doing better," Davenport said Friday. " But that is probably not the case."
Davenport and fellow researchers are in their second year of a three-year program funded by a grant from the Tennessee Wildlife Resources Agency aimed at determining whether the alligator snapping turtle should be listed as an endangered species — one that is threatened with extinction.

Before the turtles can be added to the list, or included in certain animal management programs, researchers must determine how the reptiles are doing.

"There hasn't been a good assessment [of alligator snapping turtles] in the state of Tennessee for a long time," Davenport said.

In the early 2000s, scientists released some alligator snapping turtles in West Tennessee, and they were the turtles found in June, Davenport said.

"We haven't found any new sites where the turtles are living," he added. "The turtles are probably really low in number now.”

Alligator snapping turtles are the largest freshwater turtles in North America with weights topping 150 pounds. They are known to live more than a half century, living up to their name with clawed feet, triple saw-tooth ridges running the length of their shells, and a fierce hooked beak.

Josh Ennen, a biologist with the Tennessee Aquarium Conservation Institute, said according to some accounts, the alligator snappers were pulled out of some rivers and swamps by the tons during the 20th century to satisfy the booming pet trade and to supply meat for turtle soup. It is now against state law for people to capture the turtles.

"When you think about a long-lived animal that doesn't reproduce that much, populations just can't rebound as well as something like an insect that has thousands of offspring a year," Ennen said in a statement.
Davenport said once the turtles start gaining weight they quickly move to the top of the food chain and they typically reproduce between the ages of 30 and 50.

"We were hoping to find these guys out there, but we aren't," he said, noting that this makes it unlikely the state's population of alligator snappers will increase on its own.

In some places across the country, there are larger populations of the turtles, Davenport said, and in the future some of these turtles could be relocated to Tennessee.

During the trip in June, researchers put tags on the two alligator snappers they found, hoping to track where they are spending time in coming years.

Davenport said information will be helpful if scientists decide to reintroduce turtles to the area, as they will want to be sure they are putting the turtles in an environment where they will do well.

The research partnership between the Tennessee Aquarium, TWRA and Southeast Missouri State is proving very beneficial, Davenport added.
"We hope to keep up the work," he said. " I hope not to lose these turtles from Tennessee.”
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