Largest Population of ‘Ancient’ Turtles in Texas May be in Buffalo Bayou

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Wildlife biologist Eric Munscher has been studying alligator snapping turtles in a part of Houston so improbable that it’s got those in the turtle world talking. Over the past two years, 60 of this species (Macrochelys temminckii, specifically,) have been tagged over a nine-mile portion of Buffalo Bayou, and Munscher believes it to be the location of the largest population of its kind in Texas, if not anywhere for that matter.

Buffalo Bayou has long produced other such predators, including alligator gars and alligators themselves. Its murky water lends itself to another reason not to set foot in it (unless you dare,) which is the potential for bacterial pollution. Jordan Gray is a collaborator in Munscher’s study of alligator snapping turtles and a former Houston zookeeper. He also works for the Turtle Survival Alliance headquarters in Charleston, South Carolina, and told the Houston Chronicle, “Nobody in their right mind would think of Buffalo Bayou as a refuge. It’s not this pristine habitat like the Upper Trinity River, but that’s what makes it so cool, to find this gem of a population.”

Largest Population of ‘Ancient’ Turtles in Texas May be in Buffalo Bayou

Photo: Facebook/Chris Ang

Munscher made the discovery of this habitat practically by accident. While surveying wildlife for his day job at SWCA Environmental Consultants, he had placed two turtle traps near the end of his work. Not anticipating anything to come of them, he was stunned to find six alligator snapping turtles. They ranged from a small juvenile to a 96-pound male of the species which was potentially 80 years in age. To Munsch, this suggested that there was a possible population that was actively breeding. After connecting with Texas Parks and Wildlife, Musch’s study got underway, including the trapping, tagging, and releasing of the alligator snapping turtles at a minimum of once a month over the course of the next 10 years. In an interview with, he explained, “We want to do it because it’s such an unheard of habitat … If you find a lot of turtles, it means they’re doing pretty well… We study them over time to see how and why they’re doing so well.”

Largest Population of ‘Ancient’ Turtles in Texas May be in Buffalo Bayou

Photo: Facebook/Loggerhead Acres Turtle Farm

They are the largest of the turtle species found in America and the largest hard-shelled turtles globally. Experts have identified that the number of alligator snapping turtles have dropped significantly over the past 100 years, leading conservationists to petition to have them added to the Endangered Species list. Damming of the waterways, harvesting, (they can be hunted legally in Louisiana, year-round, once a day for personal consumption), and poaching have become problems for the species. In Texas, those found to be capturing or molesting the alligator snapping turtle without Texas Parks and Wildlife permits could face criminal charges, since they are protected as a threatened species by law. Munscher wants to determine the range of Buffalo Bayou’s turtles. Although they may not rank right up there with other species that the public sees as cute and cuddly, working with this species is important to the ecosystem of the area and has an obvious connection to the bayou and other such habitats in and around Houston.