Chinese What-Is-It

Posted by: Loren Coleman on May 30th, 2006

There is a May 30, 2006, news item that is one of those tidbits that have you scratching your head.

It is running in the China Daily under the headline "Bizarre Creature Puzzles Thousands."

The entire article (note: it sometimes becomes a deadlink, having mysteriously vanished 12 hours after it was first published) reads:

Thousands of residents of Tianmen, Hubei Province, have flocked to see a rare turtle-like creature caught by an elderly man in a nearby reservoir. Some think that the animal, weighing in at 8.3 kilograms, looks like an alligator. It has three rows of horns on its shell, a pair of eyes like an owl, and a tail measuring over 30 centimetres. It is currently being taken care of by local experts, who are trying to determine what exactly it is.

No photograph was published. [Update: See below. A photograph was discovered via another source.]

An animal weighing 8.3 kilograms is 18.3 pounds. A tail that is 30 centimeters long, of course, translates into something that is only a foot, that’s 12 inches, in length.

But is it a turtle, with a shell? Or an alligator? Alligators don’t have "rows of horns" on a shell. Could there be something lost in translation here?

There are two species of alligators; one is in China, the other in America. Chinese alligators (Alligator sinensis) live in a small area of northeastern China, in the provinces of Jiangsu, Zhejiang, and Anhui, but not Hubei. They are sometimes called Yangzi alligators because of where they are found, near the Yangzi River. Only about 150-200 exist in the wild, in scattered ponds, although the zoo captive population is said to be over 10,000 animals, throughout China.

This mystery Chinese reptile may be an out-of-place alligator snapping turtle (Macrochelys temminckii), which is the largest freshwater turtle in North America. One of the differences between the common snapping turtle (Chelydra serpentina serpentina) and the alligator snapping turtle is the three distinct ridges on the carapace of Macrochelys, whereas the common snapper has a smoother shell.

Alligator Snapping Turtle

Alligator snapping turtle (Macrochelys temminckii) image from the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service National Image Library – public domain. P.S. On the Internet Macrochelys is often incorrectly referred to as Macroclemmys or Macroclemys.

The "three rows of horns" on the shell of this mystery Chinese turtle does make it sound like an American alligator snapping turtle. Perhaps it is nothing more than an out-of-place pet, or more unlikely a new undiscovered species? What is the pet trade like for alligator snapping turtles among the Chinese?

It is the kind of story that comes my way where I wonder if I will ever hear about an outcome. Maybe someone in China will read this, and let us know if a firm identification is ever made.

Maine Gator

An alligator, this one found in Maine in April 2006, doesn’t seem to look anything like the description of the creature captured in China.


See below the photograph published in the Chinese media of this "cryptid." It clearly is of an alligator snapping turtle. What such a healthy specimen is doing in a Chinese pond is a mystery. Thanks to Raymond Goh from API, Singapore, for this.

Alligator Snapping Turtle

Loren Coleman About Loren Coleman
Loren Coleman is one of the world’s leading cryptozoologists, some say “the” leading living cryptozoologist. Certainly, he is acknowledged as the current living American researcher and writer who has most popularized cryptozoology in the late 20th and early 21st centuries. Starting his fieldwork and investigations in 1960, after traveling and trekking extensively in pursuit of cryptozoological mysteries, Coleman began writing to share his experiences in 1969. An honorary member of Ivan T. Sanderson’s Society for the Investigation of the Unexplained in the 1970s, Coleman has been bestowed with similar honorary memberships of the North Idaho College Cryptozoology Club in 1983, and in subsequent years, that of the British Columbia Scientific Cryptozoology Club, CryptoSafari International, and other international organizations. He was also a Life Member and Benefactor of the International Society of Cryptozoology (now-defunct). Loren Coleman’s daily blog, as a member of the Cryptomundo Team, served as an ongoing avenue of communication for the ever-growing body of cryptozoo news from 2005 through 2013. He returned as an infrequent contributor beginning Halloween week of 2015. Coleman is the founder in 2003, and current director of the International Cryptozoology Museum in Portland, Maine.

27 Responses to “Chinese What-Is-It”

  1. pteroophia responds:

    Wanna see a picture!!

  2. jayman responds:

    I think Loren may have hit the nail on the head with “could there be something lost in translation?” Chinese has a great many words that sound the same and is very dependent on context for proper meaning.

  3. fredfacker responds:

    Having seen quite a few alligator snappers, this all made sense to me except for the part about “eyes like an owl.” Owls have eyes that face front, not on the sides of their head like most birds, fish, reptiles, etc.

  4. Toirtis responds:

    As soon as I read the description, I thought ‘alligator snapper’…even the look of the eyes (although not fully forward-facing) fits….and I have seen more than my share of Macrochelys.

  5. Godrock responds:

    Alligator snappers are favored by some friends of mine who live in Hammond Louisianna as the best for soup. I’ve been out hunting turtles with them…once. One guy ties the rope around his waist and wades out into the shallows and feels around in the mud with his toes. The spines on the turtles go toward the tail (this is KEY). The dude then MUST grab the turtle by it’s TAIL and it’s back leg as quickly as possible and then yank the rope so his buddy can pull him to shore. If all goes well, there’s a fine soup in the making. If it does not, well…let’s just say that one of my friends has lost more than one finger because all did not go well.

    The weight puzzles me. 18 pounds is juvenile size for an ‘Gator turtle…

  6. jjames2 responds:

    Where do they get the idea that the turtle has a foot-long tail? Certainly doesn’t look like it from that picture–nor do I see “owl eyes.”

  7. One Eyed Cat responds:

    Well if it isn’t a true cryptid, it is still a mystery. And I am thinking these out-of-place critters should be tracked just to be able to rule out the more exotic explanations of sightings of strange animals in strange places.

  8. Cutch responds:

    Yup. Saw that one coming.

  9. aaha responds:

    This is typical Chinese media hype and associated falsehoods. They are taking a queue from India and other Southeast Asian media outlets. As we have Fox News, ABC News and other media conduits that have difficulty reporting the news without embellishment, the entire globe seems to be going through another stage of “dime novel” meglomania in an effort to get the public’s attention.

  10. twblack responds:

    I bet the fisherman got one heck of a surprise when he pulled it out of the water.

  11. Ceroill responds:

    I remember when I caught an alligator snapper by accident while crabbing one summer. We were using day old chicken necks as bait, and at first I thought I’d hooked a snag. Then I pulled more, and up came a sizable alligator snapper. My dad promptly used wire cutters to sever the line, and let it fall back into the water. He knew better than to get anywhere near that mouth.

  12. LSU_Crypto responds:

    I have caught many an alligator snapper growing up in the swamps around Houma, LA. We used sticks to feel around in the mud, and not our toes as the poster above described. Eighteen pounds is rather small for cooking size though.

    I also kept several as pets over the years. I raised Spike to a weight of 60 pounds before releasing him.

  13. battlekow responds:

    Those turtles sport about a thousand pounds of bite force.

  14. pipdog responds:

    there are dozens of hard shell and leather backs in kansas. we kept them as pets as kids. rule of thumb is the bigger they get the more likely you are to lose one.

  15. chazzone responds:

    I think it’s clear that the critter in the picture is not an aligator snapper. I’ve caught more than a few, and even though it has “horns” on the carapace, they are distinctly different that the structure of the aliagtor snapper. In addition, the head is another area of discongruence. The aligator snapper has a massive head that is very different than what we see in the picture.

    An earlier post pointed out the unreliability of Chinese propaganda, but I’d love to see a follow-up.


  16. sbdance responds:

    The Chinese should DNA test the snapping turtle to determine if it can be linked to a population in the U.S. Look at it. It is a living dinosaur. It would not be so farfetched to discover a population in the Old World. There are two species in the Southeastern U.S. Perhaps this is a third?

    Or it may be an escapee from a captive population bred for sale (turtle soup).

  17. Chymo responds:

    Them’s good eatin’.

  18. cfcbhoy responds:

    #6. JJames2 – Alligator snappers can have a tail as long as their shell in some instances

    Here and here are good shots of the tail.

  19. kaboobi responds:

    Being from southern Louisiana, I have seen many, many alligator snapping turtles. I have seen them as big as 200lbs personally. The description is certainly pretty close of a alligator snapper. If this is indeed one, its a baby… I’d hate to think what they’d see if they caught an alligator gar! now that is a living cryptid!!

  20. Tabitca responds:

    I think it looks very confused poor thing. Could have been someone’s exotic pet which they got rid of? Especially if it snapped at them.

    Why do you guys have to turn everything into food? 🙂

  21. Toirtis responds:

    Wel, there we be…an alligator snapper, sho ’nuff. Now, the real question, is how did it get there? Although it could easily be a released pet brought back from the US (baby alligator snappers are common and cheap enough in the trade), it seems a rather remote area…still, I am not terribly surprised.

  22. herpjitsu responds:

    It looks more like a deeply ridged common snapper to me, but I can’t clearly make out the side of the shell for a positive identification. You can’t always differentiate common and alligator snappers by the ridges. The sure fire way to tell is to look for the 3 extra scutes on the edge of the carapace in the alligator snapper. There are three on each side and they look out of place as they break up the neat line of scutes that forms a ring aroung the carapace. You can just make them out in the picture of the small alligator snapper in the article, but you can’t tell for sure in the picture in question.

    Also, the article states “P.S. On the Internet Macrochelys is often incorrectly referred to as Macroclemmys or Macroclemys.” It was noted in 1995 that the genus Macrochelys has precedence over Macroclemys, and the Society for the Study of Amphibians and Reptiles adopted this revision in 2000. It is still more commonly referred to as Macroclemys because the new name hasn’t dissemenated into the general vocabualry yet. It is not like taxonomist send out public notifications when they change names like that.

  23. Toirtis responds:

    “It looks more like a deeply ridged common snapper to me, but I can’t clearly make out the side of the shell for a positive identification.”

    It is an alligator snapper alright…trust me, my degree in herpetology was based on my speciality in Chelonia.

  24. herpjitsu responds:

    It is nice that you are so confident in your abilities, but I don’t think that there is enough information available in the picture for you, me or any other herpertologist to make a positive identification one way or the other.

  25. One Eyed Cat responds:

    Tabitca They know the Chinese see most any animal as food. It is not just a guy thing to keep mentioning it

  26. Jeremy_Wells responds:

    My guess is a pet that was starting to get to big and scary and was let go. We used to pick up half dollar sized snappers when I was a kid and keep them in an aquarium fed on earthworms all summer, then let them go in the fall. Of course this was in Kentucky, not Louisiana, so they were common snappers, not alligator snappers. However my uncle used to run float traps for snappers and this is a small one by any standards. (Also, turtle meat aficianadoes should forget that noodling stuff. Way too easy to loose a finger. The best way is to use a couple of milk jugs attached to a 1 1/2′ to 2′ piece of 2X4 as floats. Attach a strong leader to the 2X4 and use a big fishing hook and a bluegill as bait.)

  27. macrojon responds:

    As a guy who hatches around 3500 alligator snappers per year I can tell you that it is without a doubt an alligator snapper. No doubt. Tens of thousands of these baby turtles are exported worldwide for the pet trade. It is legal and since they are captive born no wild population is affected. It is now illegal to commercially take alligator snappers in any state in the Union. The pressure for turtle meat has almost eliminated this turtle from the wild. They are slow to recover from such pressure and now the out of control raccoon populations threaten every nest a female lays. If that bullet is dodged the relentless fire ants consume anything that nests on or in the ground. The turtle in China is probably an escapee about 8 to 10 years old. Many are exported there. I have a DVD devoted to this species on my website that dispels most myth and separates fact from fiction.

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