Turtle Survival Alliance Catalogues Milestone 100th Alligator Snapping Turtle in Buffalo Bayou

For Immediate Release

May 6, 2021


JORDAN GRAY, Turtle Survival Alliance, (912) 659-0978, jgray@turtlesurvival.org

• 100th Alligator Snapping Turtle captured, tagged, and released in Buffalo Bayou
• Buffalo Bayou serves as a metropolitan refuge for this Texas State Threatened species
• Buffalo Bayou’s population of Alligator Snapping Turtles may be one of the densest and most demographically significant known to science.
• 100th turtle was a 31 lb. female, and the 99th a 131 lb. male nicknamed “J.J. Watt” by the researchers in honor of the former Houston Texans’ defensive end.

HOUSTON, TX— Turtle Survival Alliance (TSA), a global turtle conservation organization, announced today the capture, tagging, and release of the 100th Western Alligator Snapping Turtle (Macrochelys temminckii) in Buffalo Bayou, Houston, Texas. The capture of this specimen represents a milestone for the TSA’s conservation initiative for this State Threatened species.

TSA-NAFTRG and SWCA Environmental Consultants' Eric Munscher, Arron Tuggle, and Aaron Dugas with turtle #99, a large male. The Alligator Snapping Turtle can attain a size of nearly 200 pounds and live well over 100 years in age. Photo: Samantha Singletary

Populations of the Western Alligator Snapping Turtle, until recently, were thought to no longer occur in Harris County. However, reports of sightings of this species from Buffalo Bayou over the years suggested a few animals did exist there. Its population in the bayou was not formally documented until TSA confirmed it in 2016. TSA’s North American Freshwater Turtle Research Group (TSA-NAFTRG), in collaboration with Texas Parks and Wildlife Department, has been studying this population since 2016. Mark-recapture efforts, combined with a radio telemetry study, aim to determine the Alligator Snapping Turtle’s abundance, density, demographics, population parameters, and utilization/movements in Buffalo Bayou.

Eric Munscher, Director of TSA-NAFTRG, stated, “A thriving Alligator Snapping Turtle population in the heart of the nation's 4th largest city is a unique situation that should not be taken for granted. To reach 100 marked Alligator Snapping Turtles in one ecosystem is a rare feat. It speaks to the dedication of the research group carrying out the work, the integrity of the ecosystem being worked in, and the unique ecological role of this environment to Houston, and Texas."

The 99th and 100th animals catalogued as part of the Buffalo Bayou study were male and female, respectively. TSA’s research has demonstrated a nearly 1:1 male to female sex ratio in the bayou, depicting an adult population in equilibrium. The 99th specimen, a hulking 131 lb. male, was nicknamed “J.J. Watt” by the research team in honor of the former Houston Texans’ defensive end.

Turtle #99 was a hulking 131 lb. male, affectionately named J.J. Watt in honor of the former Houston Texans' defensive end. Photo: Eric Munscher

Further investigations by TSA and our partners have now established the presence of Alligator Snapping Turtles not only in Buffalo Bayou, but also in three other major bayou systems in Harris County. TSA suspects that the locations of these populations within a highly urban setting have served as refuge, allowing them to escape the heavy collection witnessed in other more rural areas of the state.

“Bayous and creeks play a major role in the incredible diversity of wildlife we have here in the Bayou City. The discovery of this robust population of Alligator Snapping Turtles will go a long way with helping us bring awareness to the public on just how special the bayous are and how much they need to be protected,” said Texas Parks and Wildlife Department Urban Biologist Kelly Norrid.

The Western Alligator Snapping Turtle is the largest freshwater turtle in the Western Hemisphere. An awe-inspiring animal, 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 United States’ Gulf of Mexico drainage. In Texas, the Alligator Snapping Turtle is only known from the eastern third of the state, and Harris County represents the southwestern most range extent for the species. Alteration and degradation of its habitat, incidental drownings caused by discarded fishing line, and decades of intense demand for the turtle’s meat 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.

TSA believes the Western Alligator Snapping Turtle population inhabiting Buffalo Bayou may be one of the densest and most demographically significant known to science. The presence of a robust population of this apex predator in Houston’s primary urban waterway adds significance to the importance of maintaining an ecologically healthy Buffalo Bayou and its watershed. As the Greater Houston metropolitan area continues to expand, becomes more densely populated, and greater anthropogenic pressures are placed upon Buffalo Bayou as the primary conduit of water drainage, it is imperative that TSA continues to monitor its unique snapping turtle population.

Turtle #100, a 31 lb. female. TSA's research has demonstrated a nearly 1:1 male to female ratio in this urban population. Photo: Arron Tuggle

Current and proposed habitat alteration projects in and along the bayou threaten this delicate ecosystem and the Western Alligator Snapping Turtle which relies upon it. These human-induced changes to the landscape continue a global trend affecting turtles and other wildlife. At present, turtle populations continue to plummet worldwide, with more than 50% of species threatened with extinction. Maintaining functional populations in natural and urban settings is vital to their survival.

According to TSA Chief Operating Officer Andrew Walde, "We are currently witnessing the greatest modern-day loss of global turtle populations. Once-common species, like the Alligator Snapping Turtle, now face extinction risk due to human activities. Continued monitoring and information gathering of their wild populations is imperative to making informed, science-based decisions for their survival.”

TSA will continue to monitor and gain new population data for the Western Alligator Snapping Turtle population inhabiting Buffalo Bayou and other waterways in the Greater Houston metropolitan area for at least 10 years. Sustained data acquisition for this urban population in the highly impacted Buffalo Bayou will help guide Texas Parks and Wildlife Department’s conservation measures for this and other populations of this Threatened species across the state.


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: www.turtlesurvival.org; http://www.facebook.com/turtlesurvival; www.instagram.com/turtlesurvival; @turtlesurvival on Twitter.