Search For the Suwannee Alligator Snapping Turtle
Last year, three biologists and a TV film crew captured more than a great video.
Last October, a film crew followed Christopher Coppola, a United States Fish and Wildlife Service field biologist from Georgia, and two of his colleagues onto the black waters of the Suwannee River to capture footage of the Suwannee alligator snapping turtle (M. Suwanniensis), a newly recognized species of alligator snapping turtle found only in the Suwannee River and its drainages. Footage from the adventure will be featured in an episode of World’s Most Scenic River Journeys, a television show now in its second season on the Smithsonian Channel.
The series highlights stories related to significant waterways in Europe and North America and is narrated by Bill Nighy, a prolific actor with more than 150 credits to his name, including portrayals of Davy Jones in 2006’s Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man’s Chest and the vampire, Viktor, in 2003’s Underworld.
In the episode, the action follows Coppola, along with University of Florida Biologist Dr. Travis Thomas and Kevin Enge, a biologist with the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission, as they wrangle giant, alligator snapping turtles from traps and record key metrics like shell-length and weight, before releasing them back into the river.
And the adventure should make for great television. Alligator snapping turtles are the largest, freshwater turtles found in North America, with males reaching more than 249 pounds and females topping out at a hefty 62 pounds. They can also live to be centenarians—the current life expectancy for the average human in Georgia is about 77 years for reference.
Picture an old male alligator snapper emerging from the south Georgia blackwater with algae and other plants growing from his large, spiked carapace like a bog monster from Middle-Earth. Great TV, indeed.
The Suwannee turtles were recognized as a unique species in 2014 after a genetic study found that their ancestors had diverged genetically from the other, more widely dispersed, alligator snapping turtle species, M. Temminckii.
Last year, the USFWS petitioned the Department of the Interior to list the Suwannee alligator snapping turtle as a threatened species. The television program will highlight efforts on the part of the USFWS and its partners to learn more about the number and distribution of the turtles. The information gleaned from their work will guide conservation efforts going forward.
On the day before filming started, Coppola and the other biologists set a dozen traps in a Florida section of the Suwannee. The river was high that day, so the men took special care when setting the traps to allow enough room at the water’s surface for captured turtles to rise and breathe.
“We also had to make sure the traps wouldn’t roll and completely submerge overnight,” Coppola said. “And we were checking (and rechecking) the weather to make sure that there were no thunderstorms or downpours upstream that could come our way.”
Luckily, the weather was beautiful on the day of the shoot. “The bald cypress was changing above water reflecting the crystal-clear sky…It was beautiful.”
Two boats hit the river that morning. The first carried the three researchers, who planned to work upriver from trap to trap, hopefully catching plenty of turtles along the way. The second boat carried the four-member film crew and their cameras and sound recording equipment.
But the first five traps the men pulled from the black water were empty, and Coppola thought: “Oh, no!”
It didn’t help that there are fewer Suwannee alligator snapping turtles to catch than there should be. The trouble began during the 1960s and 1970s, when increasing demand for turtle soup led to overharvesting. Even large producers like Campbells Soup got into the game. At the bonanza’s height, 3 or 4 tons of alligator snapping turtles were harvested commercially per day in Georgia from the Flint River alone.
Although it has been illegal to harvest alligator snapping turtles in Georgia since 1992, researchers have not seen the population rebound they expected, and the same is true in Florida, where harvesting the reptiles is also prohibited.
“We’re trying to evaluate where they are, and answer questions like: What’s the population structure? How many are adults? How many are younger turtles? Is recruitment occurring?” Coppola said. “The survey (filmed) on the lower Suwannee was one of those types of projects.”
But the USFWS works routinely with Georgia DNR biologists and other Georgia partners to do similar research on Georgia’s 33-mile section of the river.
Coppola and the others grew anxious as the traps came up empty. The television studio’s money and time were on the line, and with tight production schedules, each empty trap meant the turtle’s chances of appearing in the show were shrinking.
But Coppola and his colleagues in the lead boat knew that as long as they still had traps in the water, their luck could still turn around.
And it did.
Farther upriver, they started pulling a turtle or two from each trap, which excited everyone. But the real surprise awaited them at the end of the line.
“We found five turtles in the (final trap), including the two biggest we caught that day,” Coppola said. “One was 121 pounds, and another was 113 pounds. In total, there were 344 pounds of alligator snapping turtle in that one trap. It was a challenge to get the trap safely ashore and keep all our fingers and toes.”
“The film crew was great. They were right in there as we extracted the turtles from nets and took different metrics, but they respected the work that needed to be done and mostly disappeared into the background, letting us do our thing. It was great to share the excitement of hauling one of these traps out of the water full of huge turtles.”
“People are fascinated that this prehistoric creature is living near them just under the surface. And I think it makes our lives so much richer knowing that we’re sharing the planet with such an interesting array of wildlife.”
Oftentimes, sportsmen only see the rule making and enforcement side of conservation, and that’s a shame. Surveys underway on the Suwannee River highlight the collaborative nature of the work that public scientists like Coppola do to protect our wild places. Conservation is a team effort, involving the Forestry Service, state agencies and universities, nonprofit groups and contractors.
But most of all, conservation depends on the support of landowners and the sporting public out there enjoying Georgia’s woodlands and waterways.
To keep an eye on when the show will be featured, visit the Smithsonian Channel’s website.
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