The alligator snapping turtle is the largest river turtle in North America, weighing in at up to 200 pounds and living almost a century. Now researchers from Florida and the University of Vermont have discovered that it is not one species but three.
Examining museum specimens and wild turtles, the scientists uncovered deep evolutionary divisions in this ancient reptile.
Once heavily hunted for turtle meat alligator snapper was the main ingredient of Campbell's Turtle Soup in the 1960s the riverine populations have been deeply depleted and are of conservation concern. The new discovery indicates that these animals are more imperiled than previously understood.
The two new species both live in the southeastern United States. The Suwannee alligator snapping turtle is found in Florida and Georgia and lives only in the famed Suwannee River; it has been a distinct species for at least five million years, the scientists discovered. The Apalachicola alligator snapping turtle lives in Florida, Georgia, and Alabama in and around the Apalachicola River and developed as an independent species at least three million years ago.
The genetics work to identify the new lineages of turtles was completed by Joe Roman, a conservation biologist at the University of Vermont, and colleagues. The research was led by Travis Thomas, a Florida Fish and Wildlife Commission scientist, and is reported in the April 9 edition of the journal Zootaxa.
"We found a surprising result: these really deep divisions between each river," Roman says. "Unlike common snappers, these turtles do not move from river to river; they're isolated and have been for millions of years, through many glacial ages."
Roman and his colleagues caught turtles in rivers throughout the Gulf Coast region and collected blood samples from their tails. ("Watch out!" Roman says, "some people claim they can snap a broom handle," with their powerful jaws and
|Contact: Joshua Brown|
University of Vermont