Locally rescued and rehabilitated snapping turtle Atlas now thrives at the NC Aquarium on Roanoke Island

Published 6:16 pm Tuesday, July 18, 2023

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The North Carolina Aquarium on Roanoke Island houses a resident that has quite the backstory. Atlas, a common snapping turtle (Chelydra serpentine), was found by Harbinger resident Susan McClanahan in August of 2022, fighting the strong currents of the Albemarle Sound. A local wildlife rehabber responded to McClanahan’s call for help on behalf of the snapping turtle, and took Atlas into care for a short period of time. His condition required more specialized care; he was transported to the aquarium and now lives in the Wild Wetlands habitat alongside other reptilian roommates.

McClanahan shared with The Coastland Times that her grandchildren were in town visiting the first week of August last year. While swimming in the sound, they noticed a large snapping turtle struggling to swim against the harsh currents. “The southwest winds and the rough water conditions had been relentless last summer around that time,” she reported. “Endless days of strong currents and large swells on the sound. We had also had Tropical Storm Colin in the weeks prior … It’s my belief that he [Atlas] lost his way in the tropical storm somehow and ended up stranded in our area and trapped by the bulkheads. There was nowhere for him to rest.”

After witnessing Atlas fight the currents for days and eventually wash up onto shore, McClanahan turned to a local Facebook group for help. A local wildlife rehabber responded and offered assistance. Christian Legner, the aquarium’s communications manager, said that the turtle’s time with the local rehabber was short, as he required more specialized care and attention. “At this time, the aquarium was contacted and brought the turtle into our care.”

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Upon his arrival to the aquarium in August, Atlas was diagnosed with severe anemia and partially healed fractures to his carapace. He was also underweight. “His early medical treatment included fluids, antibiotics, and deworming treatment,” Legner added. She shared that his recovery was slow, but blood values and weight were stabilized by early January of this year. Atlas now weighs 18.5 kg and has gained 2.5 kg since arriving to the aquarium.

The severe anemia and fractures that Atlas endured made him a candidate for longer term professional care. Today, Atlas can be found delighting visitors with his two American alligator roommates in the Wild Wetlands Alligator Habitat at the aquarium. These species would be found in proximity in the wild. Legner reported that Atlas is doing well; he is target trained, eats well and is easily accessible for their veterinary team to assess regularly. The habitat is large and allows lots of room for all three residents to explore, swim and bask.

Common snapping turtles rely on a strong bite to discourage predators, hence their name. Atlas is adult size for his species. Their lifespan in the wild is estimated at 35-40 years old. Common snapping turtles like Atlas can be found in fresh and brackish water and are native to North Carolina and the entire east coast. Common snapping turtles are omnivores; their diet consists of aquatic vegetation, invertebrates, fish, reptiles, birds and they often scavenge dead animals.

McClanahan named the snapping turtle Atlas after the atlas vertebrae, which in anatomy is the topmost neck vertebrae, “because it seemed he had the weight of the world on his back.” She said he must have been strong to continue fighting the waves day after day. McClanahan emotionally shared that she is in awe of how Atlas is “still kicking” after all he’s been through.

Visitors to the aquarium can check out Atlas in the Wild Wetlands exhibit. The North Carolina Aquarium on Roanoke Island is open daily from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. and located at 374 Airport Rd., Manteo.