What are the 3 Types of Snapping Turtles? An In-Depth Guide

The three main types of snapping turtles found in North America are the common snapping turtle, the alligator snapping turtle, and the smooth softshell turtle. Differences in size, appearance, habitat, and geographic range can distinguish these three species.

In this blog post, we’ll take a closer look at how to identify these formidable reptiles often seen basking on logs or river banks from the southern United States up into Canada.

While they may appear primitive and almost dinosaur-like, snapping turtles play critical ecological roles in their aquatic habitats as apex and meso predators. Read on to learn more about what sets these snappers apart.

What are the 3 types of snapping turtles?

The 3 types of snapping turtles found in North America are:

  • THE COMMON SNAPPING TURTLE (_Chelydra serpentina_) – The most widespread type. Characterized by a large head and sharp beak, and dark brown shell. Found throughout much of the central and eastern US and parts of Canada. Lives in ponds, streams, marshes.
  • THE ALLIGATOR SNAPPING TURTLE (_Macrochelys temminckii_) – The largest species, with a spiked shell and bear claw-like features. Primarily found in rivers and lakes of the southeastern USA. Known for luring prey with a worm-like tongue.
  • THE SMOOTH SOFTSHELL TURTLE (_Apalone mutica_) – Named for their smooth, leathery shell. An olive green color with long noses. Mainly inhabits large sandy-bottomed rivers across the central USA into Canada. Distinguished swimmers that rocket off bottoms to ambush prey.

Those are considered the three main species classified as snapping turtles across their range in the US and Canada. They share defensive biting and striking behaviors but vary in specific habitat types and locations.

The Common Snapping Turtle – A Widespread and Adaptable Species

The most widespread type of snapping turtle is the common snapping turtle (Chelydra serpentina). As their name suggests, these are the most frequently encountered snapping turtles across much of the United States and southern Canada.

Some key features of the common snapping turtle include:

  • Size: The most significant species of snapping turtle – carapace (top shell) length up to 19 inches, weight up to 75 lbs
  • Color: Dark brown, black, or greenish-black shell and skin
  • Habitat: Found in a wide range of slow-moving freshwater habitats with muddy bottoms
  • Range: From southeastern Canada, south to Florida and west to New Mexico

The common snapping turtle is known for its adaptability and can thrive in a wide range of temperate aquatic habitats. They spend the majority of their time submerged in ponds, shallow lakes, marshes, canals, and slow-moving streams, searching for food.

These omnivorous turtles have diverse diets consisting of aquatic plants, fish, frogs, snakes, worms, insects, crustaceans, and sometimes even small mammals and birds. Using their long necks, they ambush unsuspecting prey or scavenge dead and decaying animals.

With lifespans over 50 years in the wild, common snapping turtles play an essential role as apex predators in aquatic ecosystems throughout much of North America. Their populations remain widespread and stable, though they face threats from habitat loss and human consumption of their meat and eggs.

The Alligator Snapping Turtle – A Potent Predator

The alligator snapping turtle (Macrochelys temminckii) is the most giant turtle found in North America and is considered one of the heaviest freshwater turtles in the world.

Distinguishing features of these prehistoric-looking beasts include:

  • Size: Carapace up to 31 inches, weighs 155-176 lbs on average
  • Appearance: Large head, bear-like claws, hooked beak, spiked shell
  • Color: Dark brown, black, or green shell with white/cream markings
  • Habitat: Rivers, lakes, and swamps of the southeastern USA

As their name suggests, alligator snappers resemble a strange mash-up between a turtle and an alligator. Their most unique feature is the long pink, worm-like tongue protruding from their jaws that they wiggle to lure curious fish and frogs towards their formidable mouth.

These turtles slam their strong jaws shut with incredible speed and force to secure their next meal.

In fact, alligator snappers have the most vital bite force ever measured in the animal kingdom – exerting over 1,000 psi (pounds per square inch) of pressure!

These largely solitary giants can live up to an astonishing 100 years in the wild. Females take up to 20 years to reach reproductive maturity.

Due to overharvesting and habitat loss, alligator snappers are now classified as threatened/endangered in most of their natural range.

The Smooth Softshell Turtle – Graceful Gliders of Waterways

The third type of snapping turtle found in North America is the smooth softshell turtle (Apalone mutica). Unlike the first two species, smooth softshells are named for their distinctive soft, leathery shell, which lacks scutes (outer bony plates).

Some prominent features that set smooth softshells apart include:

  • Size: Up to 14 inches long, average 8 lbs
  • Appearance: Olive to brown skin, oval smooth shell, long neck/nose
  • Color: Greenish-brown, brown, olive, with dark spotting
  • Habitat: Medium to large rivers with sandy bottoms

Smooth softshells gracefully glide through the water, hunting for prey with their extendable necks and specially adapted tubular snouts that function like built-in snorkels.

Able to remain submerged for up to 40 minutes, these agile turtles are quick to rocket off the river bottom to ambush small fish and aquatic invertebrates drifting by.

Unlike other snapping turtle species, smooth softshells are primarily carnivorous, feeding on crustaceans, mollusks, aquatic insects, small fish, tadpoles, and even carrion.

Their rounded, pliable shells allow them to squeeze into tight crevices and surprisingly compress their bodies to nearly pancake proportions!

Though their gentle disposition earns them the name “softshell,” make no mistake – these turtles can be snappy, too, if threatened! Typically, non-aggressive, smooth softshells live solitary lives except when coming together for brief mating encounters in early spring.

Females then dig nests on sandy banks to incubate the eggs through late summer. Though their populations remain stable, smooth softshell habitat has declined significantly from river damming, pollution, and sedimentation.

Snapping Turtle Behavior and Threat Displays

Now that we’ve covered the key distinguishing features of the three types of snapping turtles found across North America, let’s take a closer look at some of their shared behaviors and defensive tactics for warding off potential predators.

Do Snapping Turtles Make Good Pets?

A common question many curious herpetology hobbyists have is – can I keep a common snapping turtle as a pet? The short answer is no. Here’s why snapping turtles do not make good pets for household aquariums or terrariums:

  • They grow to huge adult sizes, requiring massive habitats
  • Messy eaters with voracious appetites – expensive to feed
  • Powerful jaws and quick defensive bites can cause serious injury
  • Require precise temperature, lighting, and humidity levels to thrive
  • Tend to be highly stressed in captive environments away from natural habitat
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Additionally, in many areas, capturing wild snapping turtles is illegal and unethical due to declining populations from habitat loss.

Much better to appreciate these marvelous reptiles in their natural aquatic habitats through wildlife ecology tours and educational programs.

If you’re seeking a more suitable turtle pet, consider smaller species like red-eared sliders or mud turtles that adapt more readily to home terrariums. Always choose captive-bred individuals over wild capture.

Basking Habits

Despite being highly aquatic, snapping turtles still need to occasionally bask out of the water for essential physiological functions like thermoregulation.

By hauling out to logs, rocks, or banks to soak up the sun’s rays, they raise their body temperatures, which stimulates appetite, digestion, metabolism, and immune system health.

Different turtle species exhibit other basking habits:

  • Common snappers prefer to cling to submerged vegetation or hide in mud with just their heads poking out rather than fully exposed basking.
  • Alligator snappers love to find hidden backwater lagoons and gradually float up with mouths agape to bask crypto-style while practically invisible to potential threats.
  • Smooth softshells quickly scramble out over sandy beaches and riverbanks on hot days to flatten their bodies and maximize heat absorption.

Threat Displays and Striking Speed

When sensing danger like an encroaching kayaker or curious dog, snapping turtles may rapidly dart away, seeking shelter on the bottom.

However, if cornered or unable to flee, they have an arsenal of aggressive defensive threat displays to make potential predators think twice before advancing any further. These include:

  • Open mouth displays – gaping their jaws wide open to showcase their hook-tipped tongue and formidable bite capabilities
  • Neck strikes – quickly thrusting their serpentine necks out as far as possible, trying to land surprise bites
  • Foot stomps – vigorously stomping and shifting their front feet to kick up sand, debris, and intimidating splashes

Additionally, snapping turtles can strike with their heads and necks with remarkably swift speed and force – up to 6 feet per second!

Their tactics aim not necessarily to land damaging bites but rather to startle and intimidate threats just long enough to facilitate the turtle’s quick escape back into the safety of water.

Threats Facing North America’s Snapping Turtles

Though snapping turtles have persisted and thrived through prehistoric times into the modern era, many concerning anthropogenic (human-caused) threats now jeopardize future population stability across North America. Some key issues include:

Habitat Loss and Fragmentation

Wetland drainage, river damming, and rampant development along waterways increasingly isolate turtle habitats into smaller disconnected fragments. This heightens risks from:

  • Limited gene flow between populations
  • Reduced availability of intact nesting/basking sites
  • Fewer food resources to sustain stable populations
  • Higher mortality trying to migrate between fragmented sites

Turtles now must often brave treacherous obstacles like busy roads and concrete barriers just to meet their basic habitat needs. Conservation efforts prioritizing habitat protection and responsible development around turtle-dense wetlands are crucial.

Climate Change

Gradual warming trends and more extreme weather events associated with climate change pose additional threats such as:

  • Shifting temperature regimes that could skew natural sex ratios of hatchlings (determined by nest temperatures)
  • Increased drought conditions reducing aquatic habitats
  • More frequent flooding washing away delicate eggs/hatchlings
  • Hotter summers and milder winters disrupt natural hibernation cycles

Such climate shifts could make environments inhospitable for future generations. While adult turtles may temporarily endure these changes, entire populations would ultimately collapse if juveniles fail to thrive into maturity to continue breeding new generations.


Though now banned in most areas, decades of unchecked harvesting of snapping turtle eggs and adults for human consumption took an immense toll. Removing reproductive females and excessive egg harvesting prevented sufficient reproduction rates to offset losses.

Continued illegal poaching plus mortality from lawful recreational/commercial trapping warrants ongoing monitoring and protective laws to prevent any population relapses.

Road Mortalities

During overland migrations seeking mates or nest sites, female turtles must cross dangerous motorways. Tragically, many turtles get struck by speeding vehicles.

Since female mortality deals a more significant blow to sustainable breeding rates, highway hotspots often incorporate unique fences/underpasses, enabling safer passage.

Invasive Species Impacts

Introduced non-native turtles sometimes outcompete native species through more aggressive resource and habitat utilization. Invasive crayfish may prey heavily on turtle eggs, too.

Managing problematic exotic species and their ecosystem influences represents another aspect of conservation management strategies.

Subsidized Predator Populations

Humans intentionally/inadvertently supplement food sources, allowing certain predator/scavenger species like raccoons to exist at much higher densities around human development.

This spells trouble for vulnerable turtle eggs and hatchlings. Predator control helps limit additional losses to species already coping with so many modern challenges.

Disease Risks

Emerging infectious diseases among crowded turtle populations around degraded habitats pose catastrophic risks, especially for rare species with already low genetic diversity.

It’s crucial to minimize contact/contamination pathways by keeping wild turtles isolated from pets/farmed turtles and maintaining pristine habitat conditions to lower risks.

Looking Ahead: Priorities for Snapping Turtle Conservation

In light of modern threats, active strides in snapping turtle stewardship are vital for preserving populations into the future. Top conservation priorities looking ahead include:

  • Protecting and restoring critical wetland habitats
  • Creating/maintaining wildlife corridors for connectivity
  • Implementing sustainable harvesting regulations
  • Establishing additional protected areas
  • Continuing long-term monitoring of wild populations
  • Bolstering supportive breeding programs for at-risk species
  • Raising public awareness to combat poaching
  • Promoting responsible interactions with turtles encountered recreationally

While existing protections help stabilize many snapping turtle species, sustained engagement between policymakers, scientists, developers, educators, and the wider public remains imperative for enduring conservation success continent-wide.

With some species already teetering precariously in portions of their historic ranges, there is no time to waste in doubling down on meaningful action if we hope to preserve these incredible reptiles for future generations.

The planet’s remarkable snapping turtles have persisted across millions of years… but their fate now rests in our hands.

By channeling our efforts into comprehensive conservation, we can write a new chapter for coexistence with these awe-inspiring creatures.


The common snapping turtle, alligator snapping turtle, and smooth softshell turtle comprise the three types of snapping turtles inhabiting wetlands across North America.

While they share defensive snapping behaviors, these species each have distinct appearances, habitats, and ecological roles within their native ranges.

From the widespread adaptability of common snappers to the formidable hunting capacities of alligator snapping behemoths and smooth gliding movements of softshells, these reptiles showcase fascinating diversity refined through their long evolutionary journeys.

Yet, amid an uncertain environmental future, human activity now heavily influences their fate. Protecting wetland ecosystems while limiting avoidable exploitation and mortality remains critical to ensuring stable snapping turtle populations for generations ahead.

Suppose we provide space for these lingering prehistoric giants by making conservation a priority across policy, science, and public engagement.

In that case, the scenes of snappers thriving as they have since antiquity may persist long into the future. Though challenges remain, by tapping into our collective potential for stewardship of precious wildlife, a harmonious coexistence is within our grasp.

My name is Shayan Mondal, and I am a passionate turtle owner and enthusiast who enjoys sharing my knowledge and experience with fellow turtle lovers. As a proud owner of several turtle species, I understand the importance of proper care, habitat setup, and nutrition for these delightful creatures. This website regularly updates the latest insights into turtle health, diet, and conservation efforts.

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