The buzz

What's the difference?: Common snapping turtle vs. alligator snapping turtle

An alligator snapping turtle and a common snapping turtle side by side.
An alligator snapping turtle (left) and a common snapping turtle. (Photos via Shutterstock)

The sight of a snapping turtle is enough to give most people pause, given their reputation for being able to inflict damage with their powerful, snapping jaws.

The world is home to just two species of snapping turtles — common snapping turtles and alligator snapping turtles — and both live in Illinois. Even though both species live in the state, odds are if you've seen one, it's a common snapping turtle. 

How can we be so sure? First, because alligator snapping turtles live mainly in the southeastern United States, although their range does extend into southern Illinois, according to the Illinois News Bureau. However, they do not live as far north as Will County. That means if you see a snapper in our area, it's a common snapping turtle. 

And as their name would imply, common snapping turtles are quite common, while alligator snapping turtles are quite rare across most of their range. In fact, alligator snappers are listed as threatened or endangered in most of the states where they live, according to National Geographic. In Illinois, the alligator snapping turtle is one of five turtles listed as endangered, along with Blanding's turtles, spotted turtles, yellow mud turtles and river cooters.

Physically, it is quite easy to tell the difference between a common snapper and an alligator snapper, because alligator snappers look prehistoric, with large spikes on their shells and primitive faces, while common snapping turtles have smooth shells, the National Wildlife Federation reports.

Alligator snapping turtles are also quite a bit bigger than common snapping turtles. In fact, they are the largest freshwater turtles in the world, National Geographic reports. Male alligator snapping turtles typically weigh about 175 pounds, although they can weigh as much as 220 pounds. Females are much smaller, weighing about 50 pounds. Common snapping turtles typically only weigh between 10 pounds and 35 pounds, according to the Animal Diversity Web



Both are long-lived animals, with common snapping turtles living about 30 years and alligator snapping turtles living between 10 and 45 years. They both will live much longer in captivity than in the wild, Animal Diversity Web reports.

Both species spend almost their entire lives in water, with females coming on land to build nests and lay eggs. Alligator snapping turtles live in fresh water, and they usually remain in the deepest water in their habitat area, Animal Diversity Web reports. Common snapping turtles usually live in fresh water but will also live in brackish water. They prefer muddy-bottomed waters because it offers a way for them to conceal themselves. 

Snapping turtles are most well-known for their strong bites. Common snapping turtles have an average bite force of about 209 Newtons of force, while alligator snapping turtles have a little less forceful bite, averaging about 158 Newtons of force, Mental Floss reports. How does that compare to your bite? Surprisingly, humans can exert 1,300 Newtons of force between their second molars.

Still, though, a snapping turtle's bite shouldn't be underestimated. Their bite is strong enough to break through bone, the National Wildlife Federation reports. And because snapping turtles are aggressive, they should never be handled.

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