The Turtle in Missouri Folklore

alligator snapper

On March 6, 2002, MFS' Fr. Phil Hoebing interviewed John Richards of Strafford, MO, in Greene County. Richards runs Loggerhead Acres Turtle Farm, and has from childhood onward made himself a self-taught expert on these animals -- the science of their capture and management, but also the vast, sometimes wild lore surrounding them. You can visit Mr. Richards' website at: http://www.turtleman.com/

Footnote reference-numbers appear in parentheses

It is exciting to meet someone who has a passion, a driving interest, and enthusiasm for some activity or field of interest. Such a person is John Richards, known as “The Turtleman,” who has a turtle farm in Greene County, Missouri.  His driving interest is the alligator snapper -- Macroclemys temminckii This turtle is the largest freshwater turtle in the United States with a  record weight of 219 pounds.  Turtles  appeared on the earth more than 200 million years ago and have changed very little in those years. Turtles and tortoises are the oldest living groups of reptiles  on the earth,  and  have been symbols  of wisdom, benevolence, strength and determination to many cultures. The Chinese, for example, say this about the dragon turtle:

Kwei, the dragon turtle, emerged after the world was destroyed.  He took charge of the creation of the heavens and the earth. He then passed his life on to a series of guardian turtles, who are to help mankind pursue truth and wisdom. (1)
 
People who read of the alligator snapper wonder at the kinds of food that can be eaten by this reptile. It will probably feed on any animal that  that it can capture, subdue, and swallow. In captivity,  it is known to eat fish, beef, or frogs, snakes, turtles, snails, worms, mussels, crayfish, various aquatic plants. (2)
 
There is much folklore concerning turtles, and it seems that almost every world culture has its  myths and legends  about the turtle. The turtle is almost always portrayed as a symbol of strength, stability, benevolence, and wisdom. The Greeks, for example, regarded the turtle as sacred,  and Aesop’s fable of the race between the hare and the turtle shows the wisdom and determination of the turtle. It seems that almost all Native Americans in North America regarded the turtle as sacred. The following Huron story shows how the present earth had been formed for the Sky Princess who fell from her place in the sky, and was saved finally by a turtle who was all-wise and  all-benevolent. (3)
 
Many years ago the world had two parts – the Sky World where the sky people lived and the lower part that was entirely covered by water. A little girl accidentally falls through a hole in the Sky World and is saved by two swans who hold her and prevent her from falling into the world of water. The two swans take her to the Big Turtle who knows everything. The Big Turtle suggests that there is soil under the water and that if some animal could dive down and bring some soil back, an island could be made his back for the little girl. The Otter, the Beaver and the Muskrat argued over which one should dive and bring back the soil.  All three proudly try but all fail. They were very dramatic failures. Then Kiskwaye, the little Toad, volunteers.  The three who failed laughed at him.  “You are too small and too ugly to help!” However, the toad dives down and down and after a long time, she comes to the top of the water. She spits a few grains of soil onto Big Trtle’s back, and falls back into the water — dead!  The Turtle ordered the grains to be spread around his shell.  The grains grew  into a large island where the girl could live. It grew into what we call the earth -- the descendants of the Sky girl became the Earth’s people. When Big Turtle tires and moves his  position, we have earthquakes. The toad, “Mashutaha,” which means “Our Grandmother ... She is to be given much respect!”
 
In a book published in 1954, one finds that the alligator snapping turtle  does not have a very good  reputation, and that people should be very careful when they are near  this reptile. This account also describes how the wonderful “lure” works to entice fish into its large mouth. Since it is a very difficult animal to study in the wild,  many scary  stories, regarding its strong jaws,  have also  been related.

The giant of the American fresh-water turtledom, the alligator snapper turtle, is reckoned the ugliest and most dangerous by anyone who has encountered it in the rivers of the Gulf coast, the Mississippi River Valley region, and in the southeastern States. Four feet long from head to tail, weighing about one hundred and fifty pounds, it  strides ponderously about in slow, stiff-legged fashion. Its massive jaws, given the opportunity, can easily bite off a man’s arm or a foot.

The  famous “lure” of the giant turtle is described as follows.

When it is underwater, it waves the two filaments extending from its tongue.  Fishes take the moving objects to be worms and do not recognize the rocklike shell of the snapper.  As they come down to swallow the “worms,” the turtle’s cavernous jaws open to swallow them instead. These great reptiles also eat, snakes, amphibians, and waterfowl, and in turn are eaten by natives of their region.

The strength of the jaws is also described:

 The strength of a full-grown alligator turtle is revealed by its ability to break an oar into small bits by crunching it in its jaws. (4)
 
The strength of the turtle’s jaws is recognized by fishermen and turtle hunters.  One fisherman related the following incident.
 I went down to Southern Missouri to catch some fish.  While I was fishing I caught a big alligator snapper.  I threw it into the back of my truck when I was finished with my fishing. I stopped at a tavern on the way home,  and told the guys in there about the turtle.  They wanted to see it, so I grabbed a broom from behind the door and took them out to my truck.. I put that broom handle in front of that turtle and he snapped it in two! (5)

Cahn,(6)  in his book, also writes of the power of the turtle’s jaws. He shares two incidents that indicate some ambiguity about the strength of those jaws. One turtle, weighing 103 pounds, was able to cut right through a broom handle with just one snap of its jaws. However,  he also tells of another  turtle that weighed between 90 and 100 pounds that could only dent a broom handle.  Many students of the turtle relate an incident where a 103 pound specimen  walked  around the room with a 165 man standing on its back. Although the alligator snapper was known by the scientists as early as 1840, it is very difficult to find accurate information about it because this reptile is so secretive, and will  not leave its habitat in the water very often. John Richards, who has worked with the alligator snappers  for many years,  suspicious of many of the stories about the behavior of the alligator snapper.
 
Turtles in Folklore in the United States
Harry Hyatt,(7)  in his well known book,  Folklore From Adams County, Illinois, makes no distinction between the common snapper and the alligator snapper, although both are supposedly found in the area of his research. Hyatt’s work contains the following:

 Beware of being bitten by a turtle; it will hold on til sunset. (1611)
 If a turtle bites you, it will not let go until there is thunder. (1612)
 Turtles when killed will live until the sun goes down. (1613)
 It is unlucky to kill a turtle which you do not intend to eat.  (1614)
“An old saying of my grandfather was to always catch a turtle after sundown, for it will bring you good luck.” (1615)
Good luck comes from keeping a turtle in your garden. (1616)
Keep a turtle bone in your pocket for good luck. (1617)

There is another part of folklore that is not found in Hyatt, namely, that there are seven different kinds of meat in a turtle.  John Tenk expressed this when asked about turtle stew.

I sure like to eat turtles---- you know there are seven different flavors of meat in a turtle! But you gotta be careful how you handle them.  They are so quick and can have you by the fingers before you know it.  Even after you take the head off you’d better be careful! I told my kids that they should never throw a turtle head into a chicken pen.  Why a chicken will come around and peck at that head but that turtle will snap at it!  (8)

Vance Randolph  also has written about folklore and turtles in the Ozarks (though he does not seem to identify the alligator snapper in his discussion).
 
Any hillman will tell you that an ordinary mud turtle contains seven kinds of meat -- pork, beef, mutton, chicken, duck, and fish. Despite this belief, the Ozarkers as a class seldom eat turtles. The hillfolk who do eat them choose the soft shell kind, not snappers or hardshells, although I have eaten all three and find little difference. Some of the Indians in eastern Oklahoma eat land turtles or box tortoises, and a dog which can point these creatures always brings a good price in the Osage Nation. Bird hunters will not believe this, but it is a fact that some pointers and setters will disregard quail in order to retrieve turtles. But I have never known a non-Indian hillbilly who could be induced to taste a land turtle, and the majority of them will not eat any sort of reptile. There is an old saying that once a turtle bites a man, it never lets go until a clap of thunder is heard, but I don't think anyone believes such an obvious falsehood. (9)
 
The Beast of Busco
One cannot talk about alligator snappers and their size without mentioning “Oscar: The Beast of Busco.” The Chicago Tribune (June 26, 2002) referred to Oscar as “Indiana’s Sasquatch in a Shell.” The scene for Oscar is Churubusco, Indiana (pop. 1800) which is located about 18 miles south of Fort Wayne, Indiana. Some believe that a big turtle  was sighted in Fulk’s Lake around 1898, but  was not seen again until 1948.  Gale Harris had bought the Fulk farm in 1947 and had been told of a big turtle in the lake. It had been seen at least 50 years before!  Harris’ brother-in-law celebrated his birthday by fishing in the lake,  returned, and reported a most a most extraordinary experience. He described a turtle so big that when it put its head out of the water, it looked like a submarine. This had to be checked out, and Gale Harris and his minister took a boat and looked for the turtle.  After much searching, the two finally found the turtle and it was so big that Rees was looking at the head of the turtle on one side of the boat, while Harris was looking at its tail on the other side! The turtle, according to their report, had to be six feet long. Harris later compared its size to that of an old-fashioned  kitchen table, about six feet by five feet. A great search was made with many turtle experts being involved, but Oscar was never captured. Someone brought an alligator snapper to Fulk’s Lake,  and tried to pass it off as Oscar,  but this turtle only weighed 125 pounds while Oscar would have had to weigh  about 500 pounds.  John Richards has many observations about the “Beast of Busco.” How did Oscar get to Indiana? There are no alligator snappers in that part of the country. The answers, suggested by believers,  is that Oscar walked from the Mississippi River to Indiana, or, maybe a bird picked up an alligator snapper egg and flew to Indiana where it hatched. The article in the Chicago Tribune had this interesting observation:
 
It’s unclear whether Oscar’s story started as a turtle tall tale or the tale of a tall turtle. One version has Oscar crawling from the slippery depths of imagination.  Flash back to summer 1948, when two boats, Ora Blue and Charley Wilson, went fishing on Fulks Lake, then owned by farmer Gale Harris. As bona fide  fishermen, they loved stretching the truth -- and spotting  a gullible catch in his brother-in-law Harris, Wilson told him that they had spotted an enormous terrapin treading in his lake. Its back was bigger than the boat and its head big enough to swallow a basketball.
 
“Gale went to town and mentioned it in the barbershop -- somewhere where they spit and lie -- and two days later Ora Blue says, ‘You’ve got to stop, we made this up,’” said local turtle expert Rusty Reed. “But Gale said, ‘I saw it.’”
 
A second version that many Churubuscans favor is that Harris spotted Oscar while repairing his barn roof with a local minister. Nor was Harris first to see it, it is said. He was supposedly spied in 1898 by the original property owner, Oscar Fulk (hence the turtle’s name). Another sighting followed in 1914. (10)

Additionally, a body of American turtle lore has developed, related in part to ancient worldwide beliefs associating the turtle with immortality, healing, happiness, stability, and fortune. John Gutowski (11)  who has done  an excellent study of “The Beast of Busco” adds some more items of folklore.
 
If you cut its head off, its body will live for nine days.
If you kill a turtle, you will have bad luck or the turtle will haunt you.
It is bad luck to have an old  turtle shell in the house, but it is good luck to have a turtle bone in your home.
If you put a live coal on its back, the turtle will crawl out of its shell and never return.
If you carve your initials on its back, you will have hard luck.
If you carve your initials on the underside of its shell, a turtle will never leave the locality.
If it crawls to high land, that is a sign of rain.
The turtle contains the meat of all animals, or it has nine different kinds of meat.
Eating its heart is good for bravery
Eating turtle eggs is a good aphrodisiac.
Catching a diamond terrapin brings bad luck and makes the wind blow.
Churubuscans believe that there are seven different kinds of meat in a turtle.

Oscar Fulk (it is  rumored) carved his initials on Oscar the Turtle’s shell -- though no reason is given, this  may explain why the monster inhabits Fulk Lake.
 
John Gutowski also comments on the folklore of the Native Americans. He notes that the Miami Indians had been a part of the Churubusco area, and that they  have a wonderful legend about a huge turtle that had helped them with their fishing. That turtle  was large enough to be a fishing dock for the Miami Indians. However, Gutowski doesn’t know how one could apply their legend to The Beast of Busco.
 
John Tenk had mentioned previously that one should not put decapitated turtle heads among chickens. Other people who have been involved with turtles have had similar experiences. Kathy Flippo  (June 7, 2002) of Morrison, Missouri,  grew up on an island in the Mississippi River and shared this turtle story about  her uncle and aunt.  Her e-mail:

There is a great snapper turtle in my book, Back to Beaver Island . My Aunt Till always had chickens, and of course, a rooster ... which combination produced many baby chicks.Uncle Emil caught a huge snapper (a #3 washtub size) and took it over to the pump to clean it. Of course, all the chickens and their babies came running to see what was going on. Emil cut the turtle’s head off with an axe. It bounced around  the ground a couple of times drawing the chickie’s attention.One got too close  and the HEAD opened its mouth and snapped up the chickie, killing it. Of course Aunt Till was ready to do the same to her brother-in-law! (12)
   
There are many interesting items about this turtle,  and these turtles create much folklore wherever they live. This animal, as John Richards has stated,  is totally aquatic, and is seldom seen on land. The ones that are seen are probably females that are laying eggs. It is also  interesting to learn  that this turtle hardly ever swims, but prefers to walk on the bottom of  a body of water.  It also has a fascinating natural bait because it can lure fish with its tongue which has  a special appendage which is shaped like a worm. The turtle can move this  worm-like part of its tongue at will,  and thus can attract fish to come looking for a “wiggling worm.” These fish then   become quick meals for the turtle. The alligator seems to eat mainly fish and some turtles, and does not do much damage to ducks and waterfowl.  In Missouri it is unlawful to capture or kill alligator snapping turtles, because overharvesting, water pollution,  and extensive habitat alteration are the most likely reasons for the decline of this species.

Interview with John Richards  (13)

jrichards

John Richards at one of the turtle-tubs on his farm.

During this interview  John Richards recalled  his youth when he caught turtles from a creek in Kansas City. He never suspected that his experiences would lead him to owning  an alligator turtle farm in is later life:
 
When I was 4 or 5 years old we had a creek in our back road. I grew up in Kansas City. I’d get those big turtles coming up the creek. In the spring they’d move and come up that creek.  I don’t know how I kept from getting bit! I think some of those turtles were  15 or 20 pounds. They were pretty big for a little kid! I’d get those things and then they’d get out. Then I’d throw them back into the creek. I’d have them for a day or two and then I’d throw them back into the creek. The real prize was when you could get a little one -- one the size of a saucer. Then you really had something. I really got a lot of enjoyment out of them.
 
Richards' enthusiasm for turtles compelled him to study and read turtle books. One cannot but  wonder what his parents and teachers thought of his involvement with turtles, and what a gift he would have been for an elementary school science teacher.     
 
I moved on to learning all about turtles -- turtles from all over the world.  By the time I was 10 years old, I had completely digested Dr. Peter Pritchard’s  Living Turtles of the World.  And basically I knew all of the classifications -- the genuses, the subspecies, of turtle around the world. So I really had a pretty decent foundation to work from.  I knew all the Latin names -- and that stuff never leaves your mind. That's really retrievable for me. It’s the stuff that I learned last week, that’s what I can't remember.
 
When I was a kid all that stuff settled in there permanently. It’s amazing how that sticks with you -- call it obsession, call it fascination, it doesn’t matter. I get a great deal enjoyment out of the animals.
 
Even though John Richards has other  turtles than alligator snappers, he is really a specialist and expert on the big alligator snapper.
 
I like working with turtles from all over the world. The alligator snapper really captured my fantasy  as a kid.  I was really pretty sure -- there really wasn’t very much information available on the alligator snappers. I knew that they were in Missouri -- but I didn’t really know where. I was born in Kansas City. So I’d catch a little snapper and I would just want it to be an alligator snapper more than anything in the world. There was something ...  more prestige about having an alligator snapper than having a doggone common snapper. And so I would just try to weld these little common snappers into alligator snappers. It just wasn’t gong to happen. I finally got my first alligator -- I bought it from a reptile house, a wholesale place --I think that I got it in ‘68 and I was just in love with that turtle!  It really was just everything!
 
As with any person who becomes interested in the alligator snapper, John Richards studied the famous lure.  He found out through his own experience just how difficult it is to study the turtle’s behavior.
 
I watched the lure work. There's a great deal of difference between the common snapper and the alligator snapper. They both have long tails and they both snap, but with the alligator snapper, you are looking at a completely different genus. When I was a kid I was just knocked head over heels with these alligator snappers. But there really wasn’t much out there. Information about the turtle is very difficult to collect in the wild because the turtle is so secretive and so elusive, you know. It inhabits all the places where nobody wants to go, under cuts of banks -- up underneath cypress growth. It is not an animal that is studied very easily, much less collected.
 
When John got his driver’s license he was more free to look for the snappers.  Almost everyone interested in fishing, duck hunting, or turtles, finds that  one person leads to another person,  and to another person,  who can give information and answer questions. John’s questions to  various fishermen,  turtle trappers, and hunters  led him  to become frustrated and disturbed. As a result of all his frustration and his  searching, he would  eventually  begin his own  turtle farm.
 
As time went on I got able to drive and got a little bit more educated.  I got into a situation where I could go out and find where trappers had caught turtles. And running into people, and one leads into another lead... And all of a sudden pretty soon you’re gong in two different directions. All of a sudden I was thrown into an overwhelming situation where more alligator snappers were being caught than I could even fathom. So my little farm grew up from that.
 
He remembered his horrible  experience of viewing a turtle trapper with 2000 pounds of butchered turtle meat lined up.

Right then and there he had 2000 pounds of turtle lined up -- which was admittedly was only 12 or 14 turtles. They were 80 to 120 pounds. I ended up being drawn back to that. I mean, I would be up there in Arkansas on the Cash River where it runs into the White. They are Mississippi River style rivers, wide, silty.  This guy -- I ended up being drawn back. I watched those snappers being butchered. Now I’m not an animal lover. I hated seeing an animal that was so vulnerable, and which has a select environment and has trouble adjusting to the pressures man has placed on it, being treated in that way. Whether it was pollution, over harvesting, any given number of pressures -- and you see those turtles being butchered... Well I just kept being drawn back to that  guy who had 4000 pounds of alligator snappers a year.
 
They closed the markets down in Arkansas in ‘93--principally because of the individual that I was telling you about. Trapping so many... he wasn’t trapping, he was receiving alligator snappers -- they’d bring them to him from all over the state. And they were butchering a great deal. It had to come to an end. They were beginning to whack on them pretty good and so they shut them down in ‘93. So they left one state open, which is Louisiana. Louisiana remains open to this day.
 
John Richards also explained how he began his turtle farm The trappers caught little turtles in their traps and would sell bags of these for about ten dollars.
 
They’d get alligator snappers in a trap and they were about six inches or so. You could get them for 10 bucks a bag. And I’d buy up bagfuls of those things. My wife was about to shoot me because  I was buying all those turtles.Well, those little turtles were almost mature.  It was not bad for a ten dollar investment. You can’t get turtles that size now, in no way! In Louisiana, it is the only state that you can take alligator snappers in. It’s illegal to take  anything less than 15 inches. They have a limit but you have to take them over 15 inches.
 
When asked whether or not he received any financial  assistance to operate  his turtle farm, John explained that he did not need any help.
 
No, I have no grants to do my work. I make a living off of it.  There would  probably be a lot of strings attached to grant money. I don’t need it. I don’t believe in asking for something that I don’t need. Right now I am raising my two kids who demand a lot of time. We need a business which is manageable. This works out really well.

John has a pond  where he keeps the turtles,  and has added some dirt around that pond  in which the females can lay their eggs.  In describing how the eggs are collected John moved around the lake and he described his work. The soil was clay mixed with limestone,  and it seemed that it would be almost impossible for a turtle to dig in such terrain. 

If you look carefully you can see where the front feet were anchored down. You can also see the mark made by the tail. There is were the eggs will be found -- we hope! Those turtles often prove me wrong. I’ll dig down carefully and hope that this is a real nest. The female turtle usually lays her eggs in a hole that is between six and ten inches deep. If you think this dirt is hard, I will show the nest we dug the other day -- that dirt was almost pure clay, and the turtle was still able to lay her eggs and cover the nest. 

harvest

alligator snapper eggs harvested at John Richards' farm June 2, 2003

 
It turned out to be a very good nest and John was able to collect 34 eggs.  John found 30 eggs,  and thought that was total number from that turtle, when he spied four  more eggs that were well  hidden. During the laying season,  he will sometimes dig as many as 16 turtle nests in one day. He estimated that the turtle that had laid the 34 eggs, probably weighted about 40 pounds.  Each year the females lay  more eggs,  and he will collect as many as 3500 eggs in one season. These he puts into an incubator to hatch, but  he admits that he   is never able to collect  all the eggs.  Such  eggs, if they are not found by the predators,  will  hatch on their own,  and the baby turtles will  easily  find their way  to the  pond.
 
John  never sells the turtles for meat, but he does sell them to museums, to educational institutions, nature centers, convention centers, and hobbyists. Some states, like Illinois, require a permit which is easy to procure and which does not cost any money.  John admits that it is quite a chore  for these turtles to dig the hole to  deposit their eggs. The female has never been photographed  while digging its hole and laying the eggs, for it  will never come out of the pond when there is anything near its  area.
 
Many people believe that turtles can be very destructive of fish, and that as many of them  as possible should be trapped in  lakes and ponds where there are a lot of fish.  John Richards has some interesting observations on this topic.

warningturtle


The little ones eat a lot of fish.  The big ones do not have an opportunity to catch live fish; they really don’t lure. Now the common snapper will eat fish. They'll snag live fish but their damage to game fish population in a lake has to be negligible. The common snapper is completely mobile. They travel over land, they go from one pond to another. They lay a lot of eggs. They can conceal their nests much better than the alligator snapper. Their expiration rate is a fraction of that of an alligator snapper. And they lay a lot more eggs. They lay almost twice as many eggs as does the alligator snapper, and they're smaller eggs. A common snapper can lay up to 60 eggs and I’ve never had an alligator snapper lay more than 44. That's out of a 50 pound female.

When asked about the size of the alligator John Richards has some interesting comments. He is not easily convinced by many stories that pertain to   the size and age of the turtle. Both   Richards and Gutowski who did the research on “The Beast of Busco” would have an interesting conversation if they would ever meet!   Although they approach “The Beast of Busco” from different perspectives, Gutowski from a folklore view,  and Richards from science view,  they would agree that there is  such a  monster is not to be found in Churubusco, Indiana!
 
What is the size of the  alligator turtle?  For some people there is a tendency to exaggerate. The biggest thing that I can believe -- I’m from Missouri, ”you got to show me!”-- but I think there’s been a lot, not a lot of,  but, let’s say, more than a few about 170 to 180 pounds in captivity. They can fatten up to 240. Now  that is an unhealthy weight for the alligator snapper. That is not a natural weight.  They are not a fat turtle by nature. They maintain a real lean profile, but on a high protein diet, feed them chicken etc., they will fatten up. Like they were on steroids. And they will get up 230 and 240 pounds. Now you’ve heard of the Beast of Busco? One that's as big as a card table?  No way! Up in Cherubusco, Indiana. In fact there is a guy up there who has done a lot of capitalizing on that beast. In fact he has got a 170-175 pound alligator snapper, a perfect animal, that is so far out of the range.
 
There is no way. If it were in a lake, not connected to any river, you know. I want to believe in the Loch Ness Monster,I do. I really want to believe. And I want to believe in the Beast of Busco! Big as a card table?? For 6 or 8 or whatever? But I just don’t see where it’s possible. That turtle would have to be 200 years old or better! How long to they live? 95 or a 100 years.
 
When asked about such interesting stories of  fishermen who supposedly had trapped or caught an alligator snapper with a Civil War musketball or and Indian arrowhead in its shell,  John Richards had many reasons for questioning  such stories.

 Turtles with arrowheads and Civil War musket balls in their shells? I don’t believe it. I’ve heard those stories from many people.Think about it.  How is someone going to catch a turtle that big in those days? That was before hoop nets. Shoot it?  How would they have seen it? They are nocturnal animals. They don’t even move during the day. They might come up for air once or twice a day, but all you’re going to see is the tip of the snout. You’re not going to have anything to shoot at. I’ve heard of arrowheads in these things, musket balls in their shells, and I 'm sorry.  Now that’s a great story and that authenticates the fact that these animals get really old, and we know that anyway. But I just don’t buy the fact that the Indians or the Civil War soldiers or whatever are gong to run into these things.

After having heard John discuss the arrowheads and the musket shells in the turtle’s back, the interviewer just had to ask about the broom handles, and how the large turtles can bite those in two as if they were cut by an axe.  His response was brief but meaningful.
 
The big alligator snapper cannot bite a broom handle in two -- lucky to be able to bite a pencil in two.
John also commented on the secrecy of the alligator turtle. Many scientists who have been able to study the turtle  agree with his description of the turtle.
 
They are the most secretive animal---you could be living in or on a bayou that was chuckful of them and you would never see them. My farm out here has 425 plus alligator snappers  (adult snappers) in there and at  the most, on a rainy day -- in late May or early June -- when they are in high gear -- you might see 6 or 7 snouts of the water. They just come up for air 3 or 4 times a day, maybe. They don’t burn a lot of oxygen. They take some oxygen from the water. This is a very secretive animal, and very difficult to study without hoop nets or a line that is left in the water overnight with fish or chicken or whatever on it as bait. They will bite on that and  get hung up on that---but those guys who said they found musket ball in the shells makes for a great story.
           
In pointing to his one-acre pond by his home,  Richards enjoyed demonstrating some of his conclusions.  Some turtle trappers watch for the turtle to show their heads,  and then (if the water is not too deep) will go to the spot where the turtle disappeared.  To catch the turtle they feel with their feet,  reach down into the water,  find the tail,  and pull out the turtle.  Such  maneuvers would not work at Richards’ farm.
 
That pond right there (about 1 acre) is about 24 feet deep. It has 425 alligator snappers between 30 and 70 pounds. Now they’re all sleeping down on the bottom of the pond. It’s cold.  It's deep. Full of brush, snags, trees. What do I feed them? Chicken backs, necks, turtle necks, chicken leg quarters; rough fish, drum, carp, and spoonbill. Now the spoonbill might be illegal to buy. Formerly I could take spoonbill down there. So I only feed them 12 or 14 times a year. Six months of the year they do not eat. They stop eating usually the first week of October, so you have  October, November, December, January, February, March. They won’t eat this month (March--too cold). They will start eating mid-April. They start laying their eggs in  the last week of May, and they finish about June 10th.  I collect the eggs. They lay their  eggs in sandy spots up there. I hatch them myself, put them into my incubator and I manipulate the temperature.

I feed them vegetables--zuchini. All snappers are big algae eaters. The bigger they become the more they become omnivorous. And I stick with the high protein. Maybe I’ll have to think more of that and start to emptying some vegetables, like some overripe squash.
 
John   also told how he traps the ordinary snapper,  when there is a problem with them damaging wildlife. He knows that there  are problems with  the ordinary snapper and its ability to reproduce.
 
You can get into a lake or an area, where I got people who call me and tell me that the turtles are getting their ducks or their swans, or something. I’ll trap these things out and I’ll go to a 4 or 5 acre lake and pull  6 or 8 hundred pounds of common snappers out of there. Now you don’t get them all. You’ll leave some small ones in there and in a few years, they’ll be whacking the ducks too. You can’t keep them out. They move in and come from surrounding ponds. I mean in that context the animals can really be a pest. But the alligator snapper is not like that in any way at all.  It does not move from body of water to body of water. It’s not a big water or  fowl predator  And it stays on the bottom for food at night. Alligator snappers  in the Mississippi River? That’s why the tongue is not really going to work there. For one thing the Mississippi River would not be the preferred place for an alligator snapper. They’d rather be up in the bayous or sloughs.
 
John Richards has become nationally known for his innovative work,  and has appeared on some TV programs, such as “Animal  World” and “Discovery,”  where he was able to explain the nature and.  importance of the alligator snapper. During the interview Richards kept coming back to his main  concern,  that this marvel of nature, the alligator snapper, will become extinct,  unless laws are made to protect the turtle, and its habitat is preserved or restored.  He is concerned  about the damming of   streams and draining of swamps, and "surprised that the  DNR (Department of Natural Resources) is letting them get away with draining areas--along the river."

It is important to recognize that the turtle is one of the most permanent of all  species, and  is recognized as being sacred by  many cultures. The  American Indians have always regarded one species or another of turtle as sacred, and for many tribes, the land on which they lived was the back of a huge “mother turtle,” floating in a vast, primal sea. One might wonder why is there such  fascination and interest in the turtle. Few species are treated,  in so many cultures, so favorably  as the turtle. The turtle is recognized as having determination, longevity, wisdom, and benevolence. The Mayan Indians in Central America gave special status to turtles, which were linked to their astronomical and mathematical systems. The Mayans depended on agriculture for their survival, and they believed that the turtle brought rains to make their crops grow. Also, since the Mayans observed turtles to survive forest fires unharmed, they believed that the turtles had a supernatural talent for survival.  (14) Perhaps they need it. During the interview Richards kept coming back to his main  concern, that this marvel of nature, the alligator snapper, will become extinct,  unless laws are made to protect the turtle, and its habitat is preserved or restored.  He is concerned  about the damming of   streams and draining of swamps, and "surprised that the  DNR (Department of Natural Resources) is letting them get away with draining areas--along the river." 

momapturtle distribution of Macroclemys temminckii in Missouri

Phil Hoebing
Professor Emeritus of Philosophy
Quincy, University
June 7, 2003

phil

Phil Hoebing with his own alligator snapper shell

1. See: http://members.aol.com/gonysoma/folklore.html   Other cultures and their relationship to the turtle can also be found at this site.

2. Carl H. Ernst and Roger W. Barbour, Turtles of the United States   (The University Press of Kentucky, 1972) p. 32.
More information can be found in: Tom R. Johnson, The Amphibians and Reptiles in Missouri,  Second Edition, (Pub. Missouri Department of Conservation, 2000) pp. 172-174.

3. The whole story can be found at “Turtles in Folklore”: http://members.aol.com/gonysma/html (3/20s 2:59PM)
For example: “The turtle is considered to be the second incarnation of the powerful god Vishnu in the Hindu religion. On his back he carries a vessel in which the gods and demons mix the elements necessary to re-create the globe. After a thousand years, when the earth has been reborn, the turtle remains in its place, and on his back stands a large elephant, which supports the planet.”

4. American Wild Life (Illustrated) by Wm. H. Wise&Co. INC. New York 1954. (Pp. 315-316)
Other books also have descriptions of the habits and behavior of this turtle.  Tom R. Johnson, The Amphibians and Reptiles of Missouri (Revised and Second Edition), Published by the Missouri Department of Conservation, 2000.  Regarding the distribution of this turtle: Missouri: Presumed to occur in the large rivers, sloughs and oxbow lakes of southern, southeastern and eastern Missouri.  North America:  Southern Georgia, northwestern Florida, northwestern to southern Missouri, western edge of Kentucky and Tennessee, southeastern Kansas, eastern Oklahoma and eastern Texas. (Conant and Collins 1991) pp. 172-174.

5. Personal interview with a veteran fisherman and hunter along the Mississippi River, near Meyer, Illinois.

6. A.R. Cahn, The Turtles of Illinois (Illinois Biological  Monographs, Vol. XVI Nos. 1-2, Published by the University of Illinois, Under the Auspices of the Graduate School, Urbana, Ill. 1937, pp. 29-31.In his chapter on the alligator snapper he gives an account taken from Agassiz  (1857) of  the disposition of this species. A man in Texas had kept two alligator snappers in his fish-pond for several years. “They became very tame, but finding they were eating my fish, I shot one, and wounded the other with a fish-gig, but his sagacity prevented me from capturing him.” He finally caught the turtle with a hook and line, but the turtle anchored himself and broke the line. “I could never get him to bite at anything afterwards; and finding that I had a design upon his life, he became very shy.” (p.30)

7. Harry M. Hyatt, Folklore from Adams County,  Illinois, (Second and Revised Edition) Published by Western Printing and Lithographing Co., Hannibal, Mo. 1965.

8. Phil Hoebing, The Wildcat Whistle, (Folklore, Fishing and Hunting Stories from the Mississippi River Valley)  Franciscan Press, Quincy, Illinois, 1997, p. 58.

9. Vance Randolph, Ozark  Magic and Folklore (formerly titled Ozark Superstitions) (Dover Publications, Inc. New York, 1964)  p. 258.

10. Article in The Chicago Tribune, June 26, 2002

11. John A. Gutowski, The Beast of Busco: An American Tradition , Double Edition,  Midwestern Folklore, Journal of the Hoosier Folklore Society, Published at Indiana State University, Vol. 24, No. 1/2, Spring/Fall 1998. Gutowski repeats some of the turtle lore from Hyatt and Randolph and has a few items that are not found in those authors. (Pp. 26-27)

12. In a personal e-mail, Kathy Flippo, Morrison, Illinois, describes an incident that happened on an island in the Mississippi Priver. June 7, 2002.

13. This interview took place in Greene County, Missouri on March 6, 2002.

14. This item is also found at http://www.members.aol.com/gonysome/folklore.html
 

 

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