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Snapping Turtles

Chelydra serpentina

Snapping Turtle, Chelydra serpentina, side view
Photo © 2003 Jim Jung and licensors. All rights reserved

The Common Snapping Turtle is, as the name implies, common. These hot tempered and aggressive reptiles have the shortest fuse of any turtle in our area - they're not called snappers for nothing.

Snapping Turtles can be found in almost any size body of water from decorative garden pools to major rivers and large lakes – almost anywhere there is water. But whatever kind of water they inhabit their favorite habitat is well vegetated shallows. Here they slowly prowl about along the bottom sometimes sitting motionless and wait for their prey to come along.

Snapping turtles are ambush predators meaning they surprise their prey unawares. They're well designed for this life with their low rounded shells (usually decorated with a coat of camouflaging algae), their warty and tuberculed skins and their dull charcoal gray coloration. Sitting motionless on the bottom a snapping turtle looks like an old log or an algae covered rock.

Snapping Turtle in water
Photo © 2003 Virgil C. All rights reserved

Snappers are also opportunistic feeders meaning that they'll eat anything they can overpower and swallow. While their principal prey are crayfish, fish, and aquatic larvae of all kinds they have also been observed eating baby ducks, snakes, small mammals and even smaller snapping turtles. Their thick muscular necks can retract their heads into their shells and then instantly extend their gaping scissors-like hooked jaws nearly their body length to snag unwary prey.

Being reptiles snappers are cold-blooded. And being cold blooded means that it doesn't take much food to keep a snapping turtle healthy and well fed. As a consequence even small ponds can have a large population of turtles. And while they might catch an occasional healthy fish they feed primarily on the sick, the wounded and the diseased keeping aquatic populations healthy and robust.

Snapping turtles reach sexual maturity at about five years of age. Mating occurs in open water usually in late May in our area although spring and fall mating has been observed. Males pursue the females nipping at their necks and legs with their powerful jaws. These bites are mere love pecks however and are designed to slow the female and get her attention. Once this happens the two turtles face one another and engage in curious head waving ritual. If the female is receptive the male mounts her shell, they entwine their tails and mating occurs.

Snapping Turtle laying eggs
Photo © 2003 Jim Jung and licensors. All rights reserved

Female snapping turtles have the ability (as do most turtles) to plan their pregnancies. Sperm cells from the male survive in the female's reproductive tract for up to three years in a specialized duct so that when food is plentiful and life is good she can fertilize any eggs she happens to be carrying. When the eggs ripen (usually in mid June in our area) she develops a wanderlust and leaves the water (one of the few times these turtles willingly leave the water) to search for a suitable location to lay her eggs.

Snapping Turtles will sometimes lay their eggs considerable distances from the water - up to a quarter mile away has been recorded. Once the site is chosen she digs a bottle-shaped hole with her hind feet as deep as she can reach - which can be up to eight inches. She then lays from ten to thirty ping pong ball sized eggs and covers them with the previously excavated soil grading it smooth with her lower shell and tail. Depending on the temperature, rainfall and moisture content of the nest the eggs the eggs hatch in from 55 to125 days after laying. In northern climes some nests overwinter with hatching occurring in the spring of the following year. Around here most nests have hatched by the end of September.

The hatchling baby snappers (assuming the nest isn't discovered and eaten by a passing skunk or raccoon) burrow up through the covering soil and then seek the nearest body of water. In practical terms this means moving downhill until water is encountered. It's during this over- land migration that the young turtles are most vulnerable. Even though most of the migrations occur at night wandering raccoons, skunks and even owls pick off as many hatchlings as they can detect for a tasty meal. Those that actually make it to water are still not safe. Snakes, turtles, herons and other snapping turtles all find the youngsters a tasty treat and make the most of any encounter. Perhaps one turtle hatchling in twenty will live to see its second year.

But once the baby snapper discovers a safe niche in it's pond it feeds readily and grows rapidly. An inch in shell length when born a baby turtle will grow roughly an inch per year until sexual maturity is reached. After that growth slows somewhat and half an inch pre year is very respectable. If it's very, very lucky a young snapper can hope to reach ten inches in shell length and ten to fifteen pounds in weight when it finally reaches old age.

Snapping Turtle suspended by tail
Photo © Jim Jung and licensors. All rights reserved

Snapping turtles are one of the few turtles that are actually hunted and eaten as food by humans in our region. I've been told that snapping turtle is delicious when properly prepared. Having had it only once I suppose it wasn't properly prepared. It was indeed tasty – much like a cross between beef and chicken – but it was stringy, chewy and very tough. It ended my turtle hunting career right there.

A large snapping turtle can be extremely dangerous if approached incautiously. Their powerful, shearing jaws, long neck, and quick reflexes can result in very nasty bites to the careless. While the strength of their jaws is impressive their bite is often exaggerated. They're incapable of biting through broom handles or snapping off fingers and toes and they do let go before it thunders. Still a snapping turtle bite is no laughing matter.

Always approach a turtle from behind. Immobilize the creature by pressing the rear end of the shell down hard. The old-fashioned way of handling them is to pick the creature up by the base of the tail, as close to the shell as you can manage, as you see in the photo. However, it's been brought to our attention by Bill Smither, a member of the Gulf Coast Turtle and Tortoise Society, that injury to the turtle is possible when this method is used, as the tail is an extension of the turtle's spine. It's safer for the turtle to immobolize it and pick it up by the hind legs, and Mr. Smither assures me from personal experience that its no more dangerous for the human to use this method. Make certain you hold it well away from your leg. Use common sense and you won't get bitten. Of course an even better way to avoid bites is to avoid picking them up entirely. Anymore the only time I pick one up is to remove it from a dangerous situation like a highway.

Snapping turtles have been around a long time. They were present when the dinosaurs left and they've watched the mammals rise to prominence. It is true that they're ugly (by human standards), pugnacious and aggressive but it's stood them in good stead for a very long time. Left alone they'll go about their business of keeping our lakes and streams disease free and our fish populations healthy with no need for interference from us.

Snapping Turtle on road
Photo © Jim Jung and licensors. All rights reserved

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The information on this page is tailored to Southern Illinois, Southwest Indiana, Western Kentucky, and Southeast Missouri

Copyright © 2003 Jim Jung
Some images on this page Copyright © 2003