The Misunderstood Snapping Turtle

The largest freshwater turtle in the Northeast, the common snapping turtle (Chelydra s. serpentina) can be found throughout our state. Notice the large head with its hooked beak, and at the other end, a very long tail with triangular protrusions. The snapper’s large size and prehistoric appearance often frighten people who encounter it.

Snapping turtleThis aquatic turtle prefers permanent bodies of water, such as lakes, ponds, rivers, bogs and marshes. It will also visit the salt water and brackish habitats of salt marshes and tidal creeks. Mostly active at night, the snapping turtle spends its days in warm shallow waters where it will bury itself in the soft, muddy bottom, leaving only its head exposed. Or it will float at the water’s surface to bask in the sun to regulate its body temperature. Sometimes a snapper can be seen hauled out onto a rock or log to bask. As evening falls the turtle will feed on aquatic plants, such as pondweed and water-lily, as well as fish, crayfish and carrion. Its reputation for feeding on ducklings is a bit overstated, though it will partake of an occasional meal of waterfowl.

The snapping turtle also has a reputation for being an aggressive monster on land. But consider this: most turtles are able to withdraw into their shells when threatened. The snapping turtle cannot because, although its top shell, the carapace, is large, its bottom shell, the plastron, barely covers its underside. While this type of shell works fine for the aquatic, mud-dwelling snapping turtle when in its normal pond or swamp habitat, it does not protect the turtle when it travels over land to find a new pond or a site to lay eggs. An “aggressive” snapping turtle is only being defensive and will bite when cornered. Obviously, it does not actively seek out humans to attack.

If you encounter a snapping turtle on land it is most likely a female searching for a sandy or gravelly spot in which to lay her eggs. If you keep your distance you may be able to observe her as she digs several false nests and then a final one in which she deposits her eggs. There are typically 20 to 40 one-inch, perfectly round, white eggs laid, but sometimes over 80 eggs are deposited. The female then scrapes sand over the nest to cover it, tamping it down with her body. Her responsibility to her offspring ends there as she then heads back to her pond. The eggs will hatch in September or October in our area. The one-inch hatchling turtles may spend the winter in their underground nest, or they may emerge and head for shallow water.

Snapping turtles can live up to fifty years or longer and their shells can reach 12 to 15 inches in length. Weighing in at 45 pounds or more, the snapping turtle is often killed for its meat. But since these turtles accumulate concentrations of chemical toxins in their flesh, including PCBs, it would be wise to consider the health risks before partaking in a meal of snapping turtle soup

Submitted by Cindi Kobak

Photo by Cindi Kobak