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At “off the Square Antiques” in Pontotoc, the preserved remains of a huge Alligator Snapping Turtle are displayed.

Found in the Tallahatchie River, this antediluvian reptile no longer lurks in the muddy waters of a somnolent river but now sits atop a table and surveys shoppers in pursuit of memorabilia from days gone by. And, yet, perhaps an antiques store is a most appropriate setting for this giant turtle whose ancestors once inhabited the wetlands of North America millions of years ago. This turtle is the progeny of turtles that lived when dinosaurs once roamed the earth and would have been right at home in the Jurassic era. It is truly an antique.

The Alligator Snapping Turtle is the largest freshwater turtle in North America and is only found in rivers and streams that flow into the Gulf of Mexico. This turtle has a dark brown carapace with three jagged ridges, a long, thick tail, and large legs, and can weigh up to 200 pounds. Ah, but it is the large, menacing-looking head, ominous yellow eyes, and hawk-like beak, capable of ensnaring its prey in an inescapable vise, that get your attention.

This behemoth of a turtle is also a wily predator that will lie on the bottom of the riverbed with its large jaws wide open. Deviously wiggling its long, worm-like tongue, it lures curious fish and amphibians to swim right into its mouth, and then with amazing speed and power will clamp its jaws shut. Alas, there is no escape for the duped, doomed creature.

Alligator Snapping Turtles are primarily aquatic and spend most of their lives submerged. They can remain underwater for as long as 50 minutes before having to surface to gulp air. Should you see this huge turtle on land, it will be a female in search of a place to lay her clutch of 10 to 60 eggs, which will hatch in 100 to 140 days. It is interesting that the sex of the baby turtle is determined by temperature.

The Alligator Snapping Turtle is not necessarily a reptile one would want to encounter on a canoe trip down the river, but herpetologists are thrilled when they espy this old denizen of the deep. Because these large turtles were once over-harvested by canning companies to make turtle soup a few decades ago, the population of the Alligator Snapping Turtle has been seriously depleted, and the dwindling numbers of turtles has been exacerbated by the fact that it takes several years for these turtles to reach sexual maturity and reproduce. These turtles are scavengers and play an important ecological role in keeping our rivers and streams clean. The Alligator Snapping Turtle is now protected in most parts of their range.

One rainy day in late spring many years ago, the Earth Lady saw an Alligator Snapping Turtle lumbering across the road. No doubt, it was a female in search of sandy loam in which to deposit her eggs. The Alligator Snapping turtle in the antiques shop brought to mind that close encounter so long ago. Like a prehistoric creature from another geological era, the Alligator Snapping Turtle has defied the march of time.

THE EARTH LADY by Margaret Gratz appears once a month in the Daily Journal.

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