Snapping Turtle

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The Common Snapping Turtle

Scientific name: Chelydra serpentina

Did You Know?
Turtles have been around for over 200 million years. The common snapping turtle, as we know it, evolved about 40 million years ago. It walked the earth with dinosaurs and survived when those great creatures became extinct. Now, after a mere 100,000 years of sharing the earth with humans, the snapping turtle’s survival may soon be threatened. Once very common in much of southern Canada, the common snapping turtle was recently declared a “species at risk” (COSEWIC).

What Makes a Snapper Snap?
Unlike other turtles, the common snapping turtle cannot “hide in its shell” when disturbed. The plastron (flat under belly) and carapace (upper shell) are too small to allow it to retract its head. Instead, the snapper uses its long, agile neck and powerful jaw to defend itself. It can easily break a large stick with its jaw – so stay clear! Although snapping turtles aggressively defend themselves on land, they are actually quite shy in the water and prefer to quickly swim away when approached.

Would you believe?
Snapping turtles are so good at locating decaying matter that law enforcement agencies sometimes use them to find dead bodies in lakes.

Measuring Up
  • weighs an average of 10 kilos (22lbs) but has been known to exceed 32 kilos (70lbs)
  • length of the carapace (upper shell) generally ranges from 23 to 34 centimetres
  • lives 40-50 years, on average, in the wild, but has been known to live much longer

Features
  • large head with powerful hooked upper jaw or “beak” (no teeth)
  • very long, agile neck – stored in shell when not in use
  • relatively small carapace and plastron (looks a little too big for its shell)
  • strong legs, webbed feet, with five clawed toes on each foot
  • long tail topped with triangular scales
  • the shell consists of an upper carapace and a lower plastron, joined at the side by “bridges”
  • carapace colour varies from brown to olive green to near black
  • prehistoric looking

Diet
  • omnivorous: eats aquatic plants and animals including fish, frogs, birds
  • even eats snakes and other turtles
  • plays an important role as a scavenger, eating dead fish and animals.
  • swallows small prey whole
  • uses strong jaw and claws to tear larger prey to pieces
  • can go for weeks without food but will eat all it can when food is available

Home
  • chooses a home where there is a permanent water source
  • wetlands, rivers, lakes and slow moving streams, all make good homes
  • prefers shallow water with a muddy base

Behaviour
  • nocturnal (active at night)
  • spends most of its time in shallow water, buried in mud, waiting to ambush prey
  • lifts its long neck up to take in air as needed
  • sometimes floats at the surface
  • does not spend as much time basking as other turtles
  • can be very aggressive if disturbed on land
  • avoids conflict in the water by swimming away, quickly
  • the adult snapper has few natural predators

Reproduction
  • mating occurs in the water
  • the female may travel a long distance on land to find just the right sandy spot to lay her eggs
  • the female uses her strong legs to dig a hole for the eggs
  • generally lays between 20-40 eggs, roughly the size of ping pong balls
  • the mother buries the eggs and then returns to her home
  • the gestation period is 9-18 weeks
  • many predators, including racoons, foxes and skunks will hunt for the protein rich eggs
  • only about 1 in 100 eggs will ever hatch
  • the incubation temperature of the eggs determines the sex of the hatchlings

Threats
  • main threat to adult snapping turtle is humans
  • in some areas, hunted by humans for their meat and for their eggs
  • turtle eggs are hunted by predators including, racoons, foxes, skunks and large birds
  • hatchlings are hunted by big fish and big birds
  • adult females often hit by cars as they cross roads to find nesting sites
  • because it takes so long for females to reach maturity, the loss of the adult female has a terrible effect on the snapping turtle population

How to Help:
  • watch for turtle crossing signs
  • if you see a turtle trying to cross a road ask an adult to help it cross safely (never try to change a turtle’s direction)
  • Do not collect wild turtles and do not keep snapping turtles as pets

Video Credits:

  • Writer: Susan Terrill
  • Camera: Douglas von Rosen
  • Editor: Douglas von Rosen
  • Music: Greg Forbes