Central American snapping turtle (Chelydra rossignoni)

Also known as: Mexican snapping turtle
Spanish: Chiquiguao, Servengue, Tortuga Lagarto, Zambundango
GenusChelydra (1)
SizeAverage carapace length: 38.9 cm (2)

Classified as Vulnerable (VU) on the IUCN Red List (1).

A large freshwater turtle, the Central American snapping turtle earns its common name from its strong, hooked jaw and aggressive temper (3) (4). With its large, narrow head, pointed snout, long tail and rough carapace, with three prominent ridges, the Central American snapping turtle is a peculiar species (2) (3) (4). The colour of the carapace is highly variable, and may be brown to olive, or an olive to black colour, while on the underside, the small, rounded plastron is a contrasting cream to yellow, or tan to grey (2). The shell also often has algae growing on it, adding to the turtle’s camouflage (2) (3) (4). The skin is a uniform grey or black, speckled with white on juveniles, and is covered in long, pointed tubercles around the neck area. The Central American snapping turtle has an unusual hunting method, using four to six fleshy barbels around the mouth to lure unsuspecting prey (2).  

Described as recently as 1996, the Central American snapping turtle was formerly considered a subspecies of the common snapping turtle (Chelydra serpentina). However, as a result of genetic differences, and subtle differences in the morphology of the skull and shell, the Central American snapping turtle was elevated to full species status (1) (5).

The Central American snapping turtle ranges from Veracruz in Mexico, through southern Belize, to central Guatemala, and north-western Honduras (1).

The Central American snapping turtle inhabits slow-moving, freshwater tributaries, marshes, swamps, oxbows and backwater sloughs, preferring murky water with dense vegetation, and avoiding open water (1) (2).

Owing to the relatively recent description of this solitary, nocturnal species, there is an understandable lack of information on its specific biology. However, this omnivore is believed to forage for a variety of prey, including shrimps, crabs, frogs and fish, and will supplement its diet with plant material (1) (2). The Central American snapping turtle is also believed to be largely aquatic, rarely coming onto land, or basking in open areas (2). However, after breeding between April and June, females move onto sandy riverbanks to dig nests, and lay a clutch of 20 to 30 eggs (1) (2). As with a number of reptiles, the sex of the young is determined by incubation temperature, with high and low temperatures yielding more females, and moderate temperatures yielding more males (6).

Threatened by overharvesting for food, and habitat loss, the Central American snapping turtle is believed to have undergone a worrying 30 percent decline over the last 30 years. Despite being protected by law in both Mexico and Guatemala, the uneven enforcement of this has allowed exploitation of this species to persist. Consequently, surveys have found the Central American snapping turtle to be rare (1).

To accurately assess the status of the Central American snapping turtle, there is a pressing need for further studies into its ecology and threats. Surveys are also required in several protected areas to investigate the species’ presence. A captive breeding programme has been developed, and combining the release of captive bred turtles with improved law enforcement should greatly improve the future prospects of this enigmatic species (1).

For more information on the Central American snapping turtle, see: 

For more information on the conservation of turtles, see: 

This information is awaiting authentication by a species expert, and will be updated as soon as possible. If you are able to help please contact:

  1. IUCN Red List (March, 2010)
  2. Turtles of the World(CD-ROM), by Ernst, C.H., Altenburg, R.G.M. and Barbour, R.W. (March, 2010)
  3. Burnie, D. [ed.] (2001) Animal. Dorling Kindersley, London.
  4. Halliday, T. and Adler, K. (2002) The New Encyclopedia of Reptiles and Amphibians. Oxford University Press, Oxford.
  5. Phillips, C.A., Dimmick, W.W. and Carr, J.L. (1996) Conservation genetics of the common snapping turtle (Chelydra serpentina). Conservation Biology, 10: 397-405.
  6. O’Steen, S. (1998) Embryonic temperature influences juvenile temperature choice and growth rate in snapping turtles Chelydra serpentine, The Journal of Experimental Biology, 201: 439-449.