Nick Baker's Wierd Creatures - Friday October 19

nick baker’s weird creatures
the swamp thing (3/8)

Continuing his second series of compelling nature documentaries, Nick Baker goes on the trail of another strange beast from a far-flung corner of the globe. In tonight’s edition, Nick heads to the USA in search of a creature with the claws of a bear, the jaws of a griffin and the biggest bite in the animal kingdom –the alligator snapping turtle.

The search for Nick’s weird creature this week takes him to New Orleans in America’s Deep South –the home of blues, jazz and a remarkable turtle. Beginning his quest on the Mississippi river, Nick hopes to locate an animal that has spent 13 million years evolving into the perfect swamp survivor. As Hurricane Katrina was tearing the heart out of New Orleans, the alligator snapping turtle would have been sat in the mud at the bottom of the river, totally oblivious to the goings-on all around. The creature’s future, however, is being chipped away by a number of man-made threats.

The first turtles that Nick finds are at a restaurant, where the Cajun menu reads like a field guide to the local wildlife. The turtles eaten here are red-eared sliders, but Nick wants to find the animal’s larger cousin. Local trapper Lewis has watched the turtles disappear from the swamps over the years. In his days hunting the animal, he claims to have caught a 140-pound specimen, but this turtle is nothing in comparison to the 350-pound, 400year-old animal once caught by an elderly man, according to local folklore. “I’m pretty sure he ate for several weeks,” says Lewis of the lucky trapper.

To help him on his quest, Nick enlists the help of Alan, Cliff and Butch of the Alligator Snapping Turtle Foundation (ASTF) –a group of conservationists dedicated to local wildlife. To tag the population of ‘alli-snappers’, the ASTF line the river with nets which they check twice a day. Nick joins them on one such check and has soon encountered the first wild turtles of his trip. All of the specimens in the first nets are red-necked and red-eared, these species now being the most common.

Spotting a green tree frog, Nick plunges into the river but is in for something of a shock. “What the hell’s that?” he yells, drawing his hand out of the water. “That is unbelievably painful!” Nick has been bitten by a water boatman, a small aquatic bug capable of a nasty bite. The pain soon abates, but the frog has long gone. More luck comes when Nick and his guides check the final net and find an alligator. The animal is five feet long, so is considered only a ‘tiddler’ by the locals. “We’ve got the alligator,” says Nick. “We just need the snapping turtle bit now!”

The next day, Alan takes Nick to the home of Ben Naquin –the founder of the ASTF. Today is a big day for Ben because he is about to release an old friend into the breeding pond –a 100-pound alligator snapping turtle. “This has got to be one of the most awesome animals on earth,” says Nick.

Nick takes a trip to the breeding pond to study the alli-snapper at close quarters. “You can see all the qualities that make an AST so fascinating,” he says, as he examines a small, three-year-old specimen. The turtle has a huge jaw with selfsharpening blades on either side, a long, thick tail and a series of ridges across its tough shell. It also has a curious appendage used to lure prey. Nick cannot resist measuring the turtle’s legendary bite power, so employs the use of his trusty bite gauge. However, the alligator snapping turtle lives up to its name when it bites clean through the machine. “That’s pretty impressive,” says Nick.

With his appetite whetted by the encounter in the pond, Nick sets off once more on the search for a giant specimen in the wild. His chances of success are increased when he teams up with Captain Tom –a man who knows the swamps of New Orleans better than anyone. Soon they have found plenty of Louisiana crawfish, but there is still no sign of the turtles that call the crawfish lunch. Will Nick manage to complete his quest, or will the giant alli-snapper remain the stuff of local legend?

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