Alligator snapping turtles are some of the most recognizable reptiles in the world, thanks to their ferocity, almost exclusively carnivorous diet, appearance, and lifestyle.
They’re rarely kept as pets, though, not because they’re not popular but because they are quite pretentious and difficult to maintain.
One adult snapping turtle demands around 200 to 800 gallons of space, much of it being aquatic. This is already a deal-breaker for even the most ardent turtle lovers.
Today, though, we will discuss a rather fascinating aspect of snapping turtles: their lifespan.
How long do they actually live, how does the animal’s lifespan varies depending on the ecosystem, what other factors influence it, etc.?
Let’s get right in!
The lifespan of Alligator Snapping Turtles
Turtles are already known to have very long lifespans, which also translates to reptiles in general. This is due to their slow metabolisms and ability (in some species) to hibernate for months during their cold season.
During this time, the animal’s physiological functioning slows down dramatically, and so does the aging process.
When it comes to snapping turtles, in particular, we need to look at the situation from 2 perspectives:
- Lifespan in the wild – Snapping turtles are known to live up to 50-60 years in the wild, which is already crazy enough. Interestingly, though, this isn’t the absolute maximum that their body can take them. From a biological perspective, snapping turtles are capable of going well above that. It’s just that they’re limited by a variety of factors, which we will discuss shortly.
- Lifespan in captivity – Snapping turtles can live considerably more in captivity because they no longer need to contend with all of the factors that we’ve mentioned decrease their lifespan considerably. The longest-living captive snapping turtle is known to have reached 100 years of age, and this case is not an abnormality. Snapping turtles are known to live impressively longer lives in captive conditions thanks to the richness of resources, stable environments, top veterinarian care, lack of predation, etc.
This being said, not all snapping turtles can live as long. Several factors will influence the animal’s lifespan, both in the wild and in captivity.
Factors that Influence Their Lifespan
Different snapping turtles have different lifespans based on the following factors:
While snapping turtles are fairly adaptable and hardy, they still require special living conditions to live their best lives. The habitat layout makes a massive difference in this sense, especially when it comes to the available hiding spots.
Hatchlings and juvenile turtles demand a vegetation-rich habitat to improve their chances of survival.
Adult snapping turtles have very few to no natural predators due to their size, rock-solid shell, and unhinged aggression, paired with bone-crushing bite and blinding attack speed.
Juveniles, though, have a lot more to contend with, as they need to defend themselves against alligators, snakes, predatory birds, and even land mammals like bears and coyotes.
The heavy vegetation allows the turtle to find shelter fast in case of need. Then you have the water depth. Snapping turtles prefer to live in shallow waters, preferably slightly muddy, for extra protection.
While they can swim proficiently and remain submerged for up to 40-50 minutes at a time, they need to get to the surface to breathe regularly.
They also need to rest since they can’t swim all the time, which they typically do on the substrate, a rotten log underwater, or on land on rare occasions when they come out.
A crucial point here is that if the water is clearer and cleaner, the turtle prefers to have it deeper. This is to gain extra protection from predators that could easily hunt the turtle in shallow water. This, naturally, applies more to hatchlings and juveniles.
These aspects will not only increase the turtle’s survivability but improve its quality of life tremendously as well.
Snapping turtles are susceptible to a variety of health problems, most of which plague most reptiles in general. And then there are some which are turtle specific, as is the case with shell rot.
Shell rot is a bacterial infection that attacks the shell structure, causing it to become infected and brittle.
Naturally, this decreases the turtle’s resilience to predation, making the animal more vulnerable to predators that would otherwise be unable to kill an adult turtle.
Other noticeable health issues that threaten turtles both in the wild and in captivity include:
- Respiratory infections – Typically triggered by parasites or bacteria. These conditions can aggravate fast, causing pneumonia and leading to respiratory failure and other health problems along the way.
- Skin infections – Mostly result from bacterial infections due to the turtle experiencing open wounds. These occur as a result of predator activity, turtle-on-turtle violence, accidents during hunting or exploring their habitat, etc. Skin infections are less likely in captivity, but they’re not impossible.
- Digestive problems – These include intestinal parasites, constipation, impaction, or diarrhea and have multiple potential causes. Food poisoning is also a possibility in case you’re feeding your turtle contaminated food.
- Stress-related health issues – Snapping turtles are more likely to experience stress in captivity than in the wild. Stress is particularly dangerous to reptiles because it weakens their immune system, leaving them vulnerable to a multitude of diseases.
All of these health problems affect the turtle differently. Some can kill them directly if not untreated, while others can simply decrease the animal’s longevity and quality of life overall.
Naturally, wild turtles are more prone to health problems and the complications that come with them.
In theory, captive-bred snapping turtles have access to high-quality veterinary care, which decreases the likelihood of illness and prevents complications via early treatment.
This is a fairly obvious one. The idea here is that turtles have a slow growth rate, so they take a lot of time to reach their fully mature form. Until then, they face a variety of natural predators that vary depending on the turtle’s age and size.
For starters, pretty much all carnivorous animals consume turtle eggs if they can find them. These include coyotes, raccoons, snakes, lizards, birds, and many others.
The hatchlings don’t fare better either. Everything is trying to eat them, on land and in the water as well. The same applies to juvenile turtles, which are more resilient than hatchlings, but not by much.
So, they need to rely on their ecosystem to find shelter and keep a low profile to reduce the likelihood of death.
When mature, snapping turtles do just fine, as there’s hardly any animal that would dare to face them. It’s the journey to get to that point that’s sprinkled with deadly threats every step of the way.
Fortunately, snapping turtles no longer face any of these issues in captivity. This is another reason why captive-bred turtles live considerably longer than their wild counterparts.
Human activity is a significant factor in this sense as well. Humans contribute to the issue via habitat destruction and fragmentation, as well as via activities that reduce the snapping turtle’s available food sources.
These activities will affect the turtle population indirectly over time, making it more difficult for the reptiles to reproduce and survive.
Then you have the direct threats, such as poaching and the illegal pet trade, which affect the turtle population directly this time. Fortunately, it’s not all bad because we’re making more efforts to protect snapping turtles than to destroy them.
The problem is that the turtle’s biology (the slow growth and maturity rate) isn’t helping the issue at all.
Not all turtles are identical. Some are more proficient at survival than others, not from a practical standpoint, but a genetic one. Some snapping turtles simply have better immune systems, rendering them less prone to disease and infections.
The reptile’s genetic background dictates a variety of features and capabilities that will impact the animal’s lifespan and quality of life dramatically.
For instance, some turtles are generally more sensitive to diseases due to weaker immune systems by design. Others are only more sensitive to some health problems, like those of digestive nature, but they’re otherwise hardy and resilient.
And then you have those that simply exhibit lower lifespans because their parents lived shorter lives as well.
Unfortunately, there’s little you can do in this sense if you plan on getting a pet snapping turtle. You can’t verify your turtle’s genetics to figure out how it can impact its health and lifespan precisely.
At best, you can have a general idea of what to expect by finding out more about the turtle’s parents. This is a good idea, given that you’re acquiring an expensive-to-keep reptile pet that you’ll care for over decades to come.
Access to Food
This is another fairly obvious one. A snapping turtle that has access to quality food and regular meals is likely to live longer and stay healthier than one that doesn’t.
Fortunately, alligator snapping turtles can survive without food for up to 3 months on average, so they’re quite hardy in this sense. The issue is that they can still struggle with some health problems due to this.
The most immediate risk is that of nutritional deficiencies, especially of calcium and vitamin D3. Lacking sufficient calcium can turn the turtle vulnerable to Metabolic Bone Disease, which is a debilitating and deadly condition.
Fortunately, snapping turtles are less likely to experience such issues in captivity, so long as you feed them properly.
You might want to get your vet in on the job, too, because you want all the support you can get.
Gender is another standard predictor of potential lifespan in snapping turtles, as is for all animals in general, including humans.
In essence, male snapping turtles tend to live less than females in the wild, not necessarily because of genetic reasons, although those matter as well, but more due to behavioral differences.
Male snapping turtles are more likely to engage in risky behaviors, such as fighting predators or engaging in territorial battles with other males.
Males also compete with each other during the mating season, which increases the risk of injuries, infection, and even immediate death. Females don’t care that much about all this.
On another note, females have slower metabolisms, which is why they take longer to mature than males. This results in them reaching their maximum lifespan slower than males, which translates to longer lives.
Fortunately, these differences are less impactful for turtles kept in captivity. Partly because there are no territorial or mating-related fights anymore, that would drag the males’ lifespan down.
Genetic limitations remain, though. So, you might want to consider those when choosing your snapping turtle’s gender.
Sexual Maturity of Alligator Snapping Turtles
Interestingly, there are several factors that impact the timespan necessary for alligator snapping turtles to reach sexual maturity.
- Gender – Most alligator snapping turtles reach sexual maturity by the age of 8-10 (we’re talking years.) This only applies to males, though, because females only achieve the same milestone when they’re 12-15 years of age. Part of the reason for that is that males are overall smaller than females, so they don’t need as much time to reach their full size. Females, on the other hand, have lower metabolic rates and demand more time and resources to reach their full physical potential.
- Environmental conditions – Clean waters, suitable nest sites, available predation, and stable environmental parameters are also critical in this sense. These can impact the turtle’s ability to mature properly, requiring the reptile more time and resources to achieve sexual maturity.
- Available food – The more food the turtle can eat and the more nutritious the diet, the larger and heavier it gets. And the heavier it gets, the faster it matures, physically and sexually. This is one of the reasons why captive-bred turtles mature faster than those living in the wild.
Longest-Lived Alligator Snapping Turtles
We already know that snapping turtles can reach impressive lifespans, sometimes as high as 100 years old in captivity. But we also know that they can get even higher than that.
The title of the oldest alligator snapping turtle goes to Thunder, which died in 2016 at the respectable age of 150. This was a captive-bred snapping turtle housed in one of Newport’s public aquariums.
Thunder was pretty much a local legend that its keepers described as a picky eater that only needed up to 2 meals per week and could fast for several weeks after a consistent meal.
Needless to say, this doesn’t mean that Thunder is the epitome of how long snapping turtles can live. It’s just the oldest one we know of.
But we know that, theoretically, nothing’s stopping a snapping turtle from overcoming even this milestone.
So, it’s very likely that other turtles have already beaten this record without us knowing about them.
Snapping turtles are fascinating and beloved animals for several reasons, one of them being their long lifespan.
It’s very likely that your young snapping turtle can outlive your entire family so long as you provide it with great care, good food, and plenty of love.