OKC Zoo partners with alligator snapping turtle head start program to help increase wild populations of this vulnerable species

There’s something to snap about at the OKC Zoo! The Oklahoma City Zoo and Botanical Garden recently welcomed 11 young alligator snapping turtles to their temporary home in the Zoo’s Underground habitat, located inside the Children’s Zoo. Hatched at the Tishomingo National Fish Hatchery (TNFH), Tishomingo, Oklahoma, the turtles are a part of their head start program to raise, rear and introduce alligator snapping turtles back into their native habitat.

The Zoo just received the first group of young alligator snapping turtles in partnership with TNFH and will continue to receive additional turtles as they continue to age out of the head start program.  The turtles will live at the Zoo’s Underground habitat until they have reached four years of age. At that time, they will be returned to TNFH, and then the turtles will be released into the wild.

Found throughout North America, alligator snapping turtles are listed as vulnerable by the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN). Alligator snapping turtles were once abundant in Oklahoma rivers. However, because of human exploitation and habitat alteration, the turtle population has decreased significantly. Another major problem is that people kill alligator snapping turtles, because people mistakenly believe the turtles reduce fish populations. Because of these factors, the Oklahoma Department of Wildlife Conversation (ODWC) has listed alligator snapping turtles as a Tier-1 species, identifying them as a species of greatest conservation need in Oklahoma. The TNFH alligator snapping turtle head-start program began in 2000, with a mission to reintroduce the species into Oklahoma rivers.

“As a proud, longtime partner of the Turtle Survival Alliance, the Zoo has committed itself to turtle conservation both locally and globally,” said Seamus Ehrhard, the Zoo’s assistant curator of herpetology. “Participating in the TNFH’s alligator snapping turtle head start program is an excellent way to continue our conservation efforts, as well as educate guests about the threats facing this turtle species.”

Known as the largest freshwater turtle in North America, the alligator snapping turtle, gets its name from its spiked carapace, or shell, which looks similar to the back of an alligator. Alligator snapping turtles also have a pointed, beak-like mouth and scaly skin. They have a wormlike projection on their tongues, which they use to lure curious fish close enough to catch and consume.

The Zoo is also home to male alligator snapping turtle, Tishomingo, who shares his habitat in Oklahoma Trails with the Zoo’s female, American alligator. Male alligator snapping turtles can reach an average weight of 175 pounds with some reaching over 200 pounds. Females are much smaller in size, growing to be approximately 50 pounds. These elusive creatures spend the majority of their time in water, with females only venturing on land to lay eggs.

In addition to caring for endangered turtle and tortoise species, the Zoo partners with the Turtle Survival Alliance (TSA) to conserve turtle populations worldwide. TSA works in turtle hotspots in 15 countries, leading conservation efforts that include enforcing turtle protection laws, rehabilitating turtles confiscated from wildlife traffickers, as well as breeding and releasing endangered turtle species. Guests can help conserve turtles in the wild by participating in the Zoo’s Round Up for Conservation program, supporting a multitude of conservation efforts, both locally and worldwide.

The Oklahoma City Zoo is open daily from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. Advance tickets are required for all guests and ZOOfriends members and can be purchased at  www.okczoo.org/tickets. Zoo tickets are limited each day to maintain social distancing among guests. Located at the crossroads of I-44 and I-35, the OKC Zoo is a proud member of the Association of Zoos and Aquariums, the American Alliance of Museums, Oklahoma City’s Adventure District and an Adventure Road partner. Regular admission is $12 for adults and $9 for children ages 3-11 and seniors ages 65 and over. Children two and under are admitted free.

Stay connected with the Zoo on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram and TikTok, and by visiting our blog stories. Zoo fans can support the OKC Zoo by becoming a ZOOfriends member. Starting at $45, memberships can be purchased at ZOOfriends.org and provide access to the OKC Zoo for an entire year plus, additional benefits and discounts. To learn more about Zoo happenings, call (405) 424-3344 or visit okczoo.org.