Giant Turtles and Other Bayou Creatures

Not So Secret Alligator Snapping Turtles


Dec. 12, 2018

So recently the Chronicle blew the secret that there are giant alligator snapping turtles in Buffalo Bayou.

But apparently it wasn’t much of a secret. Turns out that lots of people already knew about alligator snappers in the bayou and elsewhere. We posted the article on our Facebook page, and we were bombarded with stories and photos of close encounters with the big snappers over the years—as near as back yard ravines.

Last year volunteers with Save Buffalo Bayou participated in this long-term project sponsored by the Turtle Survival Alliance to tag and track the massive turtles, the operation described by the Chronicle’s Molly Glentzer. The turtles, the largest freshwater turtles in the world, are designated a threatened species by the State of Texas, which means it is against the law to capture, trap, take, or kill them, or even think about doing that. They happen to be an ingredient in classic New Orleans-style turtle soup and therefore subject to poaching, which continues in the state, even though these days alligator snappers for cooking are farm-raised. We were asked to keep quiet about the turtles until the turtle scientists had a better idea of how they were doing here. Apparently they are doing pretty well.

The young researchers from the Turtle Survival Alliance had a special permit from Texas Parks and Wildlife to trap the turtles for research, checking their health, population, and movement. They needed help setting the traps (which involved wading into the water), lifting the monster turtles out of the traps, photographing, measuring, and tagging the ancient creatures, or chelonians, as senior scientist Jordan Gray referred to them; and then putting them back in the water again. All the while avoiding their massive jaws.

Alligator snapping turtle trapped for research on Buffalo Bayou. Note pink tongue used to attract prey into jaws. Photo by Jim Olive, February 10, 2017

The big turtles are among at least nine different types of turtles noted in Buffalo Bayou by avid kayaker, fisheries biologist, and environmental lawyer Bruce Bodson, who is also a member of Save Buffalo Bayou’s advisory board and executive director of Lower Brazos Riverwatch.

Since we’re telling you about the alligator snappers, we might as well mention that Bruce has seen bull sharks in the bayou as far upstream as Highway 6. (Maybe we shouldn’t tell. … Too late.)

Also swimming around in the muddy bayou waters is the prehistoric alligator gar dating from the time of the dinosaurs. These scaly creatures can get to be more than ten feet long and over 300 pounds, living to be more than 50 years old. Alligator gar, now respected for their ability to control invasive fish like carp, are also eaten, and there was not too long ago a commercial fishery for the gar down the coast. One can still find alligator gar meat for sale in some Texas fish shops, along with alligator meat, presumably farm-raised.

And yes, we do have alligators in Buffalo Bayou. Also catfish, which can grow to more than forty pounds. Amazing that there is room for all these massive creatures to move about in the shallow waters of the bayou. And they may have been doing that—the snappers, gars, and alligators—since before the 12,000-18,000-year-old bayou was a bayou, back when it was a part of the Brazos River.

Of course, there are a lot of smaller creatures, like beaver, river otter, snakes, etc. swimming in the bayou. The Rio Grande Cichlid (perch), a transplanted native, has somehow made its into the bayou. We’ve even had a report of an eel. And some very weird invasives, like Plecostomus, a gaudy, spotted aquarium fish known as the armored catfish.

Houston Strong!

Don’t feed the alligators in Buffalo Bayou.