UL-Lafayette students get a rare chance to examine an alligator snapping turtle that strayed from her campus lake home _lowres

Photo provided by Doug Dugas -- Brad Moon, an associate professor of biology at the University of Louisiana at Lafayette, returns a 50-pound alligator snapping turtle to Cypress Lake on campus.

A 50-pound alligator snapping turtle that crawled out of the lake on the campus of the University of Louisiana at Lafayette was the star attraction for biology students Wednesday before it was returned to its watery home.

Students found the adult female turtle, estimated by associate professor of biology Brad Moon to be between 30 to 50 years old, ambling alongside a brick wall that rims Cypress Lake in the heart of the UL-Lafayette campus, and she was carefully brought to a science lab in nearby Wharton Hall.

The turtle, which measured 30 inches long and 16 inches wide, appeared to have wandered out of the lake during the heavy rains.

With impressive spiked shells and thick, scaled tails, alligator snapping turtles, found almost exclusively in waterways of the southeastern U.S., can live to up to 100 years, spending most of their time submerged in water.

Joey Pons, environmental health and safety director at UL-Lafayette, said it’s unlikely the normally reclusive turtle that ventured out on land on Wednesday will leave the water again.

But, if it should, one option would be to have the state Department of Wildlife and Fisheries relocate it.

“As long as people respect the turtles and don’t antagonize them, there’s little if any chance of anything bad happening,” Pons said.

Moon consulted with the state Wildlife and Fisheries Department and the university’s Office of Environmental Health and Safety before returning the snapping turtle to the lake.

But for the time she was in Wharton Hall, both undergraduate and graduate students, some of whom are studying herpetology, the branch of zoology that centers on amphibians, were able to learn from her.

“In all the years I’ve been teaching, we’ve never had the opportunity to see one up close like that,” said Moon, who’s taught at the university for about 15 years.

Michael Fulbright, 28, a doctoral student in biology, was among the small group of students who discovered the turtle.

His main research interest just happens to be the functional morphology and digestive physiology of turtles — in other words, he said, understanding “how turtles bite and digest things.”

“Personally, this was incredibly exciting,” Fulbright said of the up-close study of the turtle. “I’ve actually looked for this species for the last four or five years. They’re very hard to find.”