The discovery of an alligator snapping turtle in an Oregon lake has biologists there worried about potential ecological damage due to this invasive species.
Invasive species are a big problem in the world, as these plants, animals and insects are showing up in places where they'd never be found naturally, and end up causing damage to the local ecosystem. Either the native species have no defenses against the invaders, or the invaders end up eating all the food or taking up all the space. Most of the time, this is a problem of the invasive species being brought to the area from overseas, but even species from the same country can be a big problem if they're taken out of their natural habitat.
That's what the Oregon state Department of Fish and Wildlife had on their hands when a fisherman spotted a large, somewhat scary-looking turtle last Friday. It turned out to be an alligator snapping turtle, and whereas it looked like something out of a dinosaur movie, or at least some exotic species from an equatorial rain forest, it's actually native to the southeastern United States.
These 'dinosaurs of the turtle world', as they're called, can grow to be over 100 kg, and there was even one report from 1937 of a 183 kg specimen found in Kansas. They do quite well in their native swamps and waterways, and the environment there benefits from them being around. However, outside of those areas, they're a big problem. Their only 'natural' predator is us, so they typically take up the top-spot in any ecosystem they move into, depleting fish populations and then moving on to whatever else is in the area — frogs, toads, snakes, and even ducklings and other turtles. Their powerful bite means that they can even pose a risk of injury to people and pets.
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The alligator snapping turtle isn't considered to be endangered, but it is protected in some states in the US, and the International Union for Conservation of Nature has it on their Red List as 'vulnerable.' The main threats to their numbers are over-collection for the exotic pet industry, over-harvesting for their meat and shells, and destruction of their habitat.
Where this particular turtle came from is unknown, but the authorities believe it was probably a pet that was released into the wild when it got too big. I'd like to report a happy ending to this story, but unfortunately, these turtles are not protected in Oregon. Rather than risk any problems from this turtle (and hoping there aren't any more), the Department of Fish and Wildlife captured and euthanized it.
(Photo courtesy: Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife)
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