The menace of Lake Ralphine: Video appears to show non-native snapping turtle that can lop off toes with a single bite
Urgent warning to all bullfrogs, bluegill, California slender salamanders, Western skinks, green sunfish and pond sliders currently living in Santa Rosa’s Howarth Park: An alligator snapping turtle may have moved into the neighborhood.
A Reddit user identified as CRSR707 posted a video Monday that he shot at Lake Ralphine while visiting the park. The longish tail, pointy nose and prehistoric armor plates on the creature gliding underwater were telltale signs.
The discovery could give Santa Rosa a West Coast version of Chonkosaurus. That was the nickname appended to a massive, portly snapping turtle that went viral earlier this week after being videotaped while lounging in the Chicago River.
The Lake Ralphine specimen is considerably smaller than Chonkosaurus, but a bit of a spectacle in its own right. If indeed it is confirmed as an alligator snapping turtle and not the common variety like its Chicago cousin, it could grow much larger and be far more menacing.
It’s not supposed to be there. Not only are snapping turtles nonnative to California, they are illegal to possess in this state without a permit, and permits are typically granted only to researchers and wildlife rescue organizations. Pet owners buy them nonetheless.
“Unfortunately, a lot of people get them when they’re babies and do not care about the law,” said Wendy Rozonewski of JNW Animal Rescue in Vallejo. “But when they start to get too big or aggressive, they start releasing the animals in water or not far from where they live. It will survive. The problem is, it kills off our native species.”
Assuming this is indeed an alligator snapping turtle, here is a comprehensive list of its known predators: human beings.
This thing is itself an apex predator. And a rarity.
“There have been 25-30 reported sightings of snapping turtles in California,” said Greg Martinelli, a program manager with the California Department of Fish and Wildlife’s Bay Delta Region. “There has only been one in Sonoma County that I am aware of.” It could not immediately be determined whether that reported sighting was an alligator snapper or the more common variety.
The common snapping turtle is known by the scientific name Chelydra serpentina, while the alligator snapper is Macrochelys temminckii. The latter is larger, more powerful and more geographically confined.
On the website iNaturalist.org, where people post pictures of wildlife and the knowledgeable weigh in on what they’re looking at, there is exactly one listed sighting of M. temminckii west of San Antonio. The person who, um, snapped the photo in July 2022 said it was east of Highway 17 in the Santa Cruz Mountains.
The website includes five Bay Area listings for common snapping turtles, none of them in the North Bay.
The alligator snapping turtle’s true habitat is the Southeast United States, along a belt that stretches from East Texas to northern Florida, and as far north as Iowa. It is the world’s largest freshwater turtle. Males typically weigh between 155 and 175 pounds. (The largest ever to swim in fresh water was a prehistoric species with the enviable taxonomic name Stupendemys geographicus; it lived at least seven million years ago and grew to 13 feet long.)
It’s said that a 400-pound alligator snapping turtle was caught in Kansas in 1937, but that can’t be reliably confirmed.
The Monster of Lake Ralphine appeared to be much smaller than that, its ridged shell perhaps 10-12 inches from stem to stern — though the man who shot the video commented that he or she was “a big-ass snapping turtle.”
CRSR707 did not respond to a message sent via Reddit, an Internet-based discussion platform.
Alligator snapping turtles are almost exclusively aquatic, according to the National Wildlife Federation, and can go 50 minutes between gulps of air. The reptile typically hunts by hiding in the mud and attracting prey with a lure-like projection of its tongue.
“This turtle will lay on the bottom of the riverbed and open his jaws to reveal what looks like a delicious bright red wriggling worm, luring prey by fiendishly twitching this appendage back and forth,” it says on the wildlife federation’s website.
And its bite is legendary. Alligator snapping turtles have a bite force of 1,000 pounds. Their jaws can snap through bone or a broom handle. They will occasionally take a human finger.
“We definitely have to take a little more precaution” when handling any kind of snapping turtle, Rozonewski said. “It’s not necessarily an aggressive turtle. But you do have to be very careful to keep your fingers out of the way. Snapping turtles, they’re quick.”
With luck, the Howarth Park turtle will not turn out to be another Lotti.
In 2013, according to an account in Spiegel International, the Bavarian village of Irsee went into a brief frenzy when townsfolk blamed an invasive alligator snapping turtle for severing an 8-year-old boy’s Achilles tendon while he played in a nearby lake.
Officials drained the lake, relocated its fish, set baited beaver traps and fenced off the entire area to look for the reptile they dubbed Lotti. It was never found, but a representative of Munich’s reptile redistribution agency said the boy’s injuries were “consistent with the bite of an alligator snapping turtle.”
The specimen in Lake Ralphine may not present immediate danger to human tendons. But it isn’t great news for other aquatic animals there.
“Snapping turtles are voracious and are omnivorous,” said Martinelli, the fish and wildlife manager. “They have even been known to bite the legs off of birds floating in the water or pulling waterfowl under the water and consuming them. They will also eat native turtles, other reptiles, amphibians, birds and mammals.
“They can upset the ecological balance of the species in a pond and have a detrimental impact on native species.”
A city of Santa Rosa representative said Recreation & Parks staff were reviewing the video to make a positive ID before deciding how to respond to the potential invader.
If it turns out to be a snapping turtle, Rozonewski, the animal rescuer, isn’t convinced it’s leading a lonely existence in the green-tinted water of Lake Ralphine.
“I’m sure where there’s one, there’s more,” she said.
You can reach Phil Barber at 707-521-5263 or firstname.lastname@example.org. On Twitter @Skinny_Post.