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Nature Notes: Common Snapping Turtle

Ed Robinson
December 1, 2016

Surely you remember that old Dean Martin song, “Everybody Loves Somebody Sometime” (what, you’re too young to remember Dean Martin? Check him out on YouTube).  This story is about a creature that is pretty hard to love unless you are into seriously ugly reptiles.  Compared to this fellow, an iguana is the belle of the ball.

You might wonder why I am even writing about snapping turtles when I have a list of about five years’ worth of fascinating creatures for future articles.  It’s simple; I asked my son what he wanted me to profile this month and this is what he wanted.  Eric was really into turtles as a boy, to the point where he amassed a collection of more than 100 turtle key chains (still in a box in our basement since his wife won’t let him display them in their home).  And I have to admit, snapping turtles command your attention in a weird reptilian way, kind of like those terrifying velociraptors from Jurassic Park.

Unless you hang around ponds and swamps, you may not have come across a snapping turtle, unless it was crossing the road in front of you.  Don’t run over one of these creatures unless your car already needs alignment!  They are rugged, nasty dinosaurs with a bad attitude to match.  An average adult snapper weighs 20–35 pounds but records show they can reach 75–85 pounds. Snapping turtles are generally loners, living out their lives in wetlands with a lot of vegetation and mud, where the turtles can hunker down and wait for prey.

The snapping turtle has an extensive range, from Nova Scotia to the Rockies and as far south as Central and South America.  This is one durable creature, and they have not changed much in tens of thousands of years.  If it weren’t for their habit of travelling long distances over land to breed and dig their nests, they would be nearly invisible to most of us.  They are also long-lived, with specimens from Canada reaching more than 100 years old.

Like other turtles, the snapper has a ridged upper shell called a carapace that can reach 20 inches long in a large male.  The carapace is generally dark-colored, running from olive green to brown or black depending upon genetics and their chosen habitat.  A smaller bottom shell, called a plastron, is softer and lighter-colored, running from tan to yellow.  The head, legs and neck are dark-colored on top, with lighter colors underneath, and the neck sports wart-like bumps called tubercles.

The serious equipment includes short, powerful legs with long, sharp claws for digging.  There is the large head with a pointed snout, and a hooked upper jaw for grabbing and tearing food (no teeth).  You definitely do not want your fingers or toes anywhere near that mouth!

The snapping turtle carries an interesting scientific name, Chelydra serpentina.  Serpentina refers to the snapper’s snake-like dexterity with its head and heck, giving it the ability to bite all the way to their hind legs.  So if you plan to grab one of these creatures, you need to carefully pick it up by the rear of its shell (not the tail, you can cause a serious spinal injury).  The safest way to move a snapper is with a shovel placed carefully under the body or with a blanket wrapped around the creature, making sure to avoid that mouth.

Snapping turtles are tough survivors since they can tolerate brackish water in estuaries, and they can survive in relatively acidic or polluted waters.  This makes the turtles useful for scientists studying the concentration and impact of pollutants over time.

During long months of hibernation, since they favor shallow water, they may be trapped in the mud under ice.  Unable to surface for breathing, the turtle opens its mouth to allow oxygen to pass through membranes into the body.  If insufficient oxygen is available, their bodies can consume stored sugars and fats in an anaerobic fashion.

A slow-moving creature like the snapping turtle has to be flexible in finding food, and the snapper will eat just about anything it can get in its mouth.  They consume algae and other aquatic plants, fish, frogs, crabs, snakes, snails, insects, smaller turtles, small mammals and birds, including small waterfowl.  While they are capable swimmers, their preferred method of finding food is to lie in wait on the bottom in shallow water, occasionally raising their snouts for a breath of air, and snapping their necks out to grab whatever comes along.  They can also stalk prey by moving very slowly until the prey is in reach.  On a fishing trip in Canada many years ago, we lost an entire stringer of bass and perch to a snapping turtle when we carelessly left the fish hanging from the dock while preparing our dinner.  We returned in time to see the turtle pulling the stringer into deep water beyond our reach.

Mating takes place between April and November, depending upon the climate.  A pregnant female will travel long distances to find the right place for her nest (trips over five miles have been documented).  Digging the nest with her feet, the female deposits 20–50 white eggs the size of ping pong balls and covers the nest with sand and vegetation.  Incubation time for the eggs runs from 9–18 weeks, depending upon outside temperatures.  In cold climates, the hatchlings may spend the winter in the nest before emerging in the spring.

The nests are vulnerable to attack by egg-loving predators such as skunks, foxes, raccoons and crows.  Once the hatchlings emerge, they may be consumed by the same predators or raptors, bullfrogs, large fish, snakes and otters.  Adult turtles may be attacked by coyotes, cougars and bears, but a large male is a formidable adversary for all but the most determined predators.  In the water, a snapping turtle is generally shy and retiring but exposed on land and threatened, they become very aggressive, snapping their mouth and hissing loudly.

Turtles have long been captured by humans for food, and snapping turtles have been taken as far away as China for production purposes.  Turtle soup is a staple of many Asian restaurants, although you should be aware that turtle meat can sequester considerable amounts of chemicals, including pesticides and heavy metals.  It is legal to harvest turtles in Maine for personal, but not commercial, use.  While their population has declined in some areas due to pollution or loss of habitat, the snapping turtle is not considered a threatened or endangered species.  If you plan to harvest a snapping turtle for the pot, please seek out information from Maine Inland Fish and Wildlife.

So, Eric, this one is for you.  A turtle’s best friend you may be, but please don’t decide to get a snapping turtle for your next pet!

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