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Houston Matters

Beasts Beneath The Bayou: Alligator Snapping Turtles Thrive In The Heart Of Houston

Houston Matters visits Buffalo Bayou, where a population of prehistoric-looking beasts are making a home in the middle of the city.

Inside the gaping mouth of a large alligator snapping turtle found in Houston’s Buffalo Bayou.

Most people wouldn't be surprised to learn that turtles live in Houston's Buffalo Bayou. They just might not realize what kinds – and just how big one particular kind can get.

Biologists have known for a while that alligator snapping turtles live in Buffalo Bayou. But what researchers have been surprised to find is that there's a thriving population of them in the bayou – amidst the urban sprawl of the nation's fourth-largest city.

Alligator snapping turtles have shells lined with prehistoric-looking triangular points with large heads, a beak-like mouth, and long, curled claws. They're the largest freshwater turtle in North America, and can grow to more than 100 pounds – with some measured up to 250. They can live anywhere from 20 to 70 years.

During a survey of other wildlife in the area, wildlife biologist Eric Munscher found them by accident in traps he'd set along the banks. Munscher works with the Turtle Survival Alliance and says it wasn't a surprise that they were there.

Researcher Eric Munscher (center) and his associates pull an alligator snapping turtle from Buffalo Bayou.

"We just never thought that there was a successful population here," he said.

Successful means he and his colleagues are finding alligator snapping turtles of all ages and sizes among the more than 60 they've trapped and tagged over the last two years.

He thinks this population might be the largest in the state and possibly one of the largest anywhere. That's why Munscher wants to keep the exact location of their habitat a secret – to protect one of the many turtle species that face over-hunting and habitat loss.

Researcher Eric Munscher and his colleague pull an alligator snapping turtle from Buffalo Bayou.

Thankfully for them, alligator snappers stay out of the limelight – quite literally. They don't need to sun themselves to regulate their temperatures like other turtles. And they only need to come up for air every 40 to 50 minutes. So, that's why most people have never seen one, and — if it wasn't for his traps — even Munscher and his colleagues would've barely caught a glimpse.

"We spend so much time on these water bodies that we expect to see one put his big head out and take a breath, and we have seen that twice," he said.

He says their success in the heart of Houston is largely because the conditions along the bayou just happen to be perfect – there's a muddy shelf where females can climb up and lay their eggs.

The muddy banks of Buffalo Bayou amidst the urban sprawl of Houston.

Munscher says the conditions along Buffalo Bayou can vary from pristine to terrible in different places. So, the snappers' presence shows they can persevere.

In the audio above, Munscher takes Houston Matters producer Michael Hagerty down to the muddy banks of the bayou to check some traps and talk about alligator snapping turtles and what their presence tells us.

Researcher Eric Munscher holds an empty trap for alligator snapping turtles, which he and his colleagues are tagging and tracking along Buffalo Bayou.