The Sooner State may be landlocked but that doesn’t mean we are devoid of aquatic resources and wildlife. With more than 160,000 miles of rivers and streams and 1,401-square miles of lakes and ponds, Oklahoma is teeming with aquatic life. These freshwaters serve as habitats for many amphibians, reptiles, fish, and even some mammals. In our Aquatic Oklahoma gallery, you can learn about noodling, feed our smaller turtles, and visit an alligator snapping turtle that is older than Oklahoma itself!
Reptiles are a group of air-breathing, cold-blooded animals with scaly skin. They are unable to regulate their own body temperatures so their metabolism depends on the temperature of their environment. Reptiles include crocodiles, alligators, snakes, lizards, turtles, and more.
One of the most beloved reptiles featured in our Aquatic Oklahoma gallery is Grandpa, our alligator snapping turtle (Macrochelys temminkii). Our experts estimate that Grandpa was born in 1898, or nine years before Oklahoma became a state. One way scientists estimate the age of an alligator snapping turtle is by weighing them. Alligators grow approximately one pound each year, so their age should be close to their weight in pounds.
Along with the alligator snapping turtle, you will find smaller species of turtles, or terrapins, that you can feed. A terrapin is a turtle that spends most of its time on land, but also lives in or near brackish waters (turtles that live in water are called turtles, while turtles that live on land are tortoises). The terrapins who enjoy tasty veggies from our visitors include: false map turtle, spiny softshell, red-eared slider, and river cooter.
You’ll also see two other types of reptiles in this exhibit. One is the American alligator (Alligator mississippiensis), which is found in southwestern parts of Oklahoma. The other is the banded water snake (Nerodia fasciata), which is often mistaken for the cottonmouth but is actually a harmless, non-venomous snake.
Our great state is home to 176 species of fish, including many species of bass, gar, and catfish. With so many fish and abundant lakes, rivers, and streams, Oklahoma is an extremely popular fishing destination. Recreational fishing generates more than $1 billion for the state’s economy each year and provides approximately 15,000 jobs.
The Oklahoma fish in this exhibit include:
- Alligator gar, longnose gar, and shortnose gar
- Blue catfish, channel catfish, and flathead catfish
- Blue sucker
- Common carp and mirror carp
- Gizzard shad
- Largemouth bass and striped bass
- Red shiner
- Shovelnose sturgeon
- Smallmouth buffalo
Amphibians are animals that must live in a wet environment to survive. They need moisture because they all have very thin skin through which they breathe and absorb water. Most of these animals are born aquatic and become adapted to a completely terrestrial lifestyle as they mature. One animal that does this is frogs: they begin as small swimming tadpoles, then grow legs and lose their tails as they grow up, and eventually shift to land-based habitats. In addition to frogs, amphibians include newts, salamanders, and toads.
Amphibian species in this exhibit include:
- Leopard frogs and their tadpoles
- Central newts
- Eastern tiger salamanders and their waterdogs
The adorable mammals that live in or near Oklahoma’s lakes and rivers are located in the Ozark Stream exhibit. Mammals featured in this exhibit include raccoons, beavers, and river otters.
- Alligator snapping turtles lure fish into their mouths by wiggling a pink appendage called a veriform appendage. Once a curious fish swims into the turtle's mouth, it snaps its jaws closed with a bite force of 1,000 pounds per square inch.
- Catfish noodling is a popular sport in which a catfish is caught with a fisherman's bare hands. Noodlers reach their arms into crevices between rocks or into holes in logs hoping a catfish will bite down. In Oklahoma, flathead catfish are the only species that are legal to catch by noodling.
- Just like sharks and knifefish, paddlefish are electroreceptive, meaning they can sense electric fields in the water.
- Eastern Tiger Salamanders begin life as a waterdog and undergo metamorphosis to become a "sub-adult." Once it is a sub-adult, it will move onto land and live underground for about four to five years until it reaches full maturity.
One of the best investments we can make for our future is to protect our native species from invasive ones. Invasive species are plants or animals that are not native to the area and can therefore cause harm to the ecosystem.
Oklahoma has several invasive species that threaten fish and wildlife. One of the most common and destructive invasive species in Oklahoma is the zebra mussel. These tiny mollusks eat the algae that native fish need, and they also clog water intakes for power plants. We can prevent the spread of zebra mussels in the water by washing boats with soap and water, and dumping bait buckets out on land. You can also report zebra mussel sightings to the Oklahoma Department of Wildlife Conservation at (405) 421-3721 or to the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers at (918) 669-7411.
For more information on ways to protect Oklahoma’s native species, please visit our conservation page.
Please note: feed shows are temporarily postponed to encourage social distancing. learn more about our COVID-19 precautions here.
Written by Alyssa Rodriguez, February 2019.