[An introduction to the Common Snapping Turtle (Chelydra serpentine) by John Davis. Special thanks to Lake Placid based nature conservation photographer Larry Master (www.masterimages.org) for permission to feature his Snapping Turtle photographs in this post.]
We are fortunate to have in the Champlain Basin at least six turtle species. You may not be lucky enough to see the rarer ones: Spotted Turtle, Common Musk Turtle (or “Stinkpot”), Northern Map Turtle, and Eastern Spiny Softshell. Several additional turtle species are native to New York State, but their populations mostly are found further to the south or west of our region.
Those of us residing in the eastern United States should take pride in our turtle diversity.
Likely, all but the Painted and Snapping Turtles are sadly diminished in numbers in our area due to habitat destruction and fragmentation, pollution, and roadkill. Painted and Snapping Turtles still seem fairly abundant, but we should take care to conserve their habitats and avoid hitting them when they try to cross roads. Those of us residing in the eastern United States should take pride in our turtle diversity. A large fraction of the world’s 240 or so turtle species— belonging to the ancient order Testudinata—live in our part of the world.
I’ll focus here on the one local turtle who may scare you, the Snapping Turtle, in the hopes the you’ll learn to like them more.
The Common Snapping Turtle
Common Snapping Turtles look mean but are not a threat to people or our companion animals unless we behave recklessly around them. Our Snapping Turtles have an even more formidable looking cousin in the Deep South, the Alligator Snapping Turtle, which can have a carapace (top part of shell) more than two feet long and can weigh over 150 pounds!
Common Snapping Turtles may reach 14 inches in carapace length and 45 pounds in weight, rarely much bigger. Generally speaking, the bigger the turtle, the older it is; and most turtles are long-lived, as well as belonging to an order that long predates our own. If left in peace, turtles may live many decades.
Snapping Turtles do indeed snap and lurk below the surface in murky waters, giving fright to small waterfowl and timid skinny-dippers. In truth, Snapping Turtles subsist largely on plants, and their most common animal prey is likely to be crayfish. It would be maladaptive for them to attack any animal too big to easily fit in their beak-like mouths.
Snapping Turtles & Automobiles
But if you corner a snapper on land, she may indeed lunge at you in self-defense. I generally carry thick work gloves when I’m cycling or driving on rural roads, in case I come across a turtle trying to cross the road. I gingerly carry them safely off the road, holding them by the sides of the carapace with the head well away from me. They protest harmlessly and are saved from being killed by cars.
Such a traveling turtle is likely to be a female looking for a place to lay her eggs. Untold countless thousands of turtles are killed on roads in our country every year, in part because many of them, including Snapping Turtles, like to lay their eggs in sandy soils well above the water.
Disease, Habitat Destruction & Climate Change
Turtles are vulnerable not only to killing by cars and habitat destruction but also to diseases from released pet turtles and from climate chaos. Unnaturally high temperatures can disrupt the gender ratio of turtle populations.
“Nest temperatures higher than 84 degrees F produce primarily females, whereas lower temperatures produce predominantly males.” (The Amphibians and Reptiles of New York State, a field guide published by Oxford University Press)
The susceptibility of turtles to introduced diseases and to warming temperatures are reminders of the sensitivity of the natural world to human machinations, and added reasons for us to conserve as much wild habitat as possible and pollute as little as possible.
Note: The content in this blog post was repurposed and a revised version is included in John Davis’s book Split Rock Wildway: Scouting the Adirondack Park’s Most Diverse Wildlife Corridor published by Essex Editions on Nov. 21, 2017. Learn more about the book and where to buy it at essexeditions.com. Watch the book trailer below.
- Snapping Turtle Whisperer? (www.essexonlakechamplain.com)
- Police Rescue Large Snapping Turtle In Laurel (baltimore.cbslocal.com)
- We had a snapping turtle around our pond last year. Will he snap at us if we try to go swimming? | Ponds & Lakes Q&A (thepondguy.com)
- Suicidal Turtles ‘Rush’ Headlong Into Traffic (fwweekly.com)
- Alligator snapping turtle wanders through university lake (sfgate.com)