Breakthrough in Turtle Genetics Sends 27 Alligator Snapping Turtles Home to Texas

For Immediate Release

August 16, 2021


JORDAN GRAY, Turtle Survival Alliance, (912) 659-0978,

• Twenty-seven Alligator Snapping Turtles seized from illegal trafficking returned to the wild in Texas.
• Turtle Survival Alliance and Tangled Bank Conservation collaborated on an innovative genetic map to guide wild repatriation.
• Genetic database will serve as a tool for state and federal agencies to determine turtle origin.
• Turtles will be monitored post-release to record movements, quantify survival, and qualify release efficacy.

TEXAS— Along with the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department and the US Fish & Wildlife Service, Turtle Survival Alliance (TSA) last week announced the release of 27 Alligator Snapping Turtles (Macrochelys temminckii) into waters of East Texas. This release represents a return to the wild for the turtles five years after their seizure from illegal traffickers and exemplifies a public-private partnership to re-wild animals with the use of innovative genetic mapping and DNA technology.

A State Imperiled Alligator Snapping Turtle is processed at the FWS Natchitoches Fish Hatchery in Louisiana before return to its Texas home. Photo: Aubry Buzek/FWS

To enable the return of these Alligator Snapping Turtles to their wild origins, Turtle Survival Alliance, in collaboration with Dr. JJ Apodaca and his team at Tangled Bank Conservation, had to determine their home waterways. TSA and Dr. Apodaca performed next-generation DNA sequencing in which they analyzed thousands of pieces of DNA across the entire Alligator Snapping Turtle genome. After comparing genetic material from all confiscated turtles to that from every major drainage in the southeast United States where the species is found, the team was able to discern specific waterways of origin for each turtle. This analysis demonstrated that the turtles originated from four rivers across two major drainages in Texas and Louisiana. Further fine-scale analysis performed by TSA and Tangled Bank Conservation allowed TPWD and FWS to identify three undisclosed locations in which to release the turtles.

“Given the threats that our native turtles are facing, we need to be developing and employing a whole suite of new and advanced tools to help conserve them. The advances in genomic sequencing have provided insights into turtle origins that were impossible just a few years ago. With these tools, we can put turtles back where they belong, in their native habitats,” said Dr. JJ Apodaca of Tangled Bank Conservation.

Special Agent Jim Stinebaugh (FWS) and Dr. Christopher Schalk (SFASU) release an Alligator Snapping Turtle. Next-generation DNA sequencing performed by Tangled Bank Conservation and Turtle Survival Alliance allowed biologists and law enforcement personnel to release the confiscated turtles to their rivers of origin. Photo: Aubry Buzek/FWS

The genomic database developed by TSA and Dr. Apodaca for Alligator Snapping Turtles will further aid state and federal wildlife officials and law enforcement in determining the location of origin for future turtles seized from illegal wildlife traffickers. For vulnerable species, identifying genetic units will aid conservationists in their continued management. Developing these genetic tools and approaches serves to benefit not only the Alligator Snapping Turtle, but a wide diversity of other species of turtle and tortoise targeted by wildlife trade. At present, more than 50% of the world’s 359 species of turtle and tortoise are threatened with extinction. For many, continuing illegal trade is a central factor.

“We’re witnessing drastic declines in turtle populations globally. Among the many threats faced by these culturally and ecologically important animals, illegal collection has broad and long-lasting impacts. While TSA and our partners continue to make forward progress in combating illegal wildlife trade, confiscations of popular and high-value species continue to mount. These recovered turtles not only place a burden on those caring for them, but signify their loss from wild populations. The level of genetic analysis and DNA mapping achieved with the Alligator Snapping Turtle revolutionizes our ability to properly and effectively return these turtles to the wild, and will serve as a blueprint for other at-risk species,” said Andrew Walde, Chief Operating Officer of Turtle Survival Alliance.

Eric Munscher (TSA/SWCA) and Dr. Christopher Schalk (SFASU) affix an Alligator Snapping Turtle with a radio-transmitter. Post-release animal movement and survival monitoring will help guide conservation and repatriation measures for populations of this threatened species across their range. Photo: Aubry Buzek/FWS

In preparation for returning the turtles to the wild, researchers from Stephen F. Austin State University (SFASU) and TPWD conducted pre-release site assessments, Dr. Joe Flanagan of Houston performed individual health assessments, and radio transmitters were affixed to each turtle under the guidance of TSA’s Eric Munscher. Post-release animal movement and survival monitoring will be performed by SFASU under the supervision of Dr. Christopher Schalk. Data acquisition from this effort will help guide conservation and repatriation measures for populations of this threatened species across their range. These efforts will help validate the efficacy of returning to the wild Alligator Snapping and other turtles confiscated from illegal trade.

The Alligator Snapping Turtle is the largest freshwater turtle in the Western Hemisphere. The Alligator Snapping Turtle can attain a size of nearly 200 pounds and live well over 100 years in age. This large turtle is almost entirely aquatic, residing in rivers, bayous, and creeks of the Gulf of Mexico drainage. In Texas, the Alligator Snapping Turtle is only known from the eastern third of the state. Alteration and degradation of its habitat, incidental drownings caused by discarded fishing line, decades of intense demand for turtle meat, and poaching have considerably reduced the Alligator Snapping Turtle’s population in Texas and throughout their range. It is now considered Imperiled by the State, and is under consideration for Federal listing.

A repatriated female Alligator Snapping Turtle sits on the edge of her river swamp home five years after being illegally removed from it. Photo: Aubry Buzek/FWS

In 2017, Texas Parks and Wildlife Department’s (TPWD) Texas Game Wardens and United States Fish and Wildlife Service’s (FWS) Office of Law Enforcement agents exposed efforts by three Louisiana men to capture more than 60 Alligator Snapping Turtles in Texas and transport them across state lines for sale. Thirty of the State Threatened Texas turtles were seized by FWS from a private property in Louisiana, and the three men were sentenced for violating federal law. The turtles have, since 2016, been kept at the FWS Natchitoches Fish Hatchery in Louisiana under the supervision of Brett Hortman.

The return of the 27 Alligator Snapping Turtles to their rightful place in the wild was made possible by the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, Turtle Survival Alliance, Tangled Bank Conservation, Stephen F. Austin State University, Houston Zoo, Sabine River Authority, Northeast Texas Municipal Water District, and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers.


About Turtle Survival Alliance

With a vision of zero turtle extinctions in the 21st century and a mission to transform passion for turtles into effective conservation action, the Turtle Survival Alliance (TSA) was formed in 2001 in response to rampant and unsustainable collection of Asian turtles supplying Chinese markets. Since its inception the TSA, a with 501(c)(3) nonprofit, has become recognized as a global force for turtle conservation, capable of taking swift and decisive action on behalf of critically endangered turtles and tortoises. TSA employs a three-pronged approach to turtle conservation: 1) restoring populations in the wild where possible; 2) securing species in captivity through assurance colonies; and 3) building capacity to restore, secure and conserve species within their range countries. In addition to the Turtle Survival Center in South Carolina, TSA manages collaborative turtle conservation programs in 15 diversity hotspots around the world. For more information, visit:;;; @turtlesurvival on Twitter.