The Staying Power of Snapping Turtles

The Staying Power of Snapping Turtles

Sure, snapping turtles are sometimes irascible and always prehistoric-looking. But these relics, which have been around for 90 million years, are the ultimate survivors.

By Ted Levin
Published: March-April 2012

Snapping turtles, whose jaws are more clamps than guillotines, do occasionally take birds. I found a note online in Volume 108 of The Wilson Bulletin titled "Observations of shorebird predation by snapping turtles in eastern Lake Ontario." The author reports on a turtle that left an inland pond and crossed a sandy beach besieged the whole way by large numbers of angry shorebirds until the snapper entered Ontario and disappeared beneath a floating carpet of algae. Why were the birds riled? In late summer, when lake shallows heat up, large submerged mats of filamentous green algae rise off the bottom and drift. Teeming with invertebrates and small fish, the mats are a floating buffet for migrating shorebirds. Snapping turtles, classic ambush predators, lurk beneath the algae pulling hapless sandpipers through by their feet, an event the author witnessed on three occasions.

Once when I was in northern Virginia, a biologist friend told me of a snapping turtle that grabbed a great blue heron by the leg and then towed the protesting bird into deep water. The turtle sank to the bottom--part anchor, part vise grip--drowning the heron, which it presumably ate. More than 30 years ago, when I was an Audubon biologist monitoring New Hampshire's loon population, residents along the shore of Lake Conway claimed a loon family had lost two chicks down the maw of a snapping turtle. I visited the lake and found several sink-sized turtles sprawled on the surface sunbathing, as though they had bubbled up from the depths like the Lake Ontario algae mats.

 

To learn about the nesting habits of snapping turtles, I visit wildlife artist David Carroll, whose books include Year of the Turtle and Self-Portrait With Turtles. Carroll is coiffed in gray from chin to crown, casual and energetic, a man who feels deeply about turtles and the fate of their diminishing habitat in the Northeast. When he was 10, he discovered how fast a snapping turtle can strike and how far it can stretch its serpentine neck. An irate turtle opened three of his fingers, although, says Carroll, "I deserved it. I was poking it in the nose with a stick." Undiminished by the experience, Carroll works with state and municipal governments, the Nature Conservancy, and land trusts to preserve critical turtle habitat. A renaissance man who hobnobs with scientists and artists, writers and scholars, Carroll has taught school, plays competitive Wiffle Ball, and has studied the same community of turtles--six different species, including snappers--for more than 30 years. Until he received a MacArthur grant in 2006, he survived on a shoestring with his wife, Laurette, also an artist, producing exquisite watercolor paintings for a series of books.

Carroll takes me to his study site, a sandy pumpkin field at the junction of two streams, a mile from a sizable river in south-central New Hampshire. He prefers not to name the river, because turtle poaching is a serious problem in the Northeast, particularly with wood, spotted, and Blanding's turtles. It's early June, well before noon. The sky is cloudless, the day already cooking. The pumpkin field is warm, a vital consideration for a mother snapping turtle choosing a nest site.

Between mid-May and late June, female snappers disperse upstream from shallow ponds and marshes, sometimes for weeks, looking for well-drained, exposed ground, anywhere the sun hits for the majority of the day--blowdowns, fields, west-facing roadsides, sandbanks and dunes, construction sites, muskrat and beaver lodges. A snapping turtle may even use an ephemeral stream as a route to its nesting site, its shell above the water. Males patrol deeper streams, necks craned, scouting for mates. Territorial disputes between ardent males are cumbersome affairs, and they splash and thrash and shove like aquatic Sumo wrestlers. Several times I've mistaken these battles royal for mating, which Carroll says is more delicate.

At the field's edge are two parallel ridges of sand eight or nine inches long and two or three inches high. A slight depression between them angles downward, and perpendicular to their lower end is the print of a long, well-muscled tail. Eggs lie below the depression. "If you want to see a snapping turtle nest," says Carroll, "go out on a rainy early morning in June." I did that once along a brook near my home and found a turtle leaning out of her little sand pit. She ignored me as I sat there for an hour watching each ping-pong-ball-size egg fall into the pit. Finished, she used her oversized hind feet to spray sand on the eggs, covering the pit, and left for the nearby brook, her personality morphing from oblivious to bellicose, snapping at anyone or anything that might interfere with her return to the safety of water.

I remember that turtle as I look at the pumpkin-field nest and imagine this turtle locked in her own egg-laying trance, skunks and raccoons--the principal nest predators in the Northeast--licking their chops in anticipation of an easy meal. "It's a wonder any eggs hatch," says Carroll, as he points to a pile of eggshells, the remnants of a nest predated a couple of days before.

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Ted Levin

Ted Levin is currently working on a book on timber rattlesnakes.

Type: Author | From: Audubon Magazine

Comments

A snapping turtle dragged a

A snapping turtle dragged a retriever, going to gather up the duck its owner had shot, to its death in our nearby marsh. An entire dog. They are monsters. But, that being said, they are God's creatures, so don't run them over in cruelty... yes, I' ve known this to be done while they lay there half-alive and I assume suffering... and, yes, of course we pulled over and sent them to turtle heaven via a hatchet that was in the car for some silly reason. Either leave them alone if they are just crawling/swimming along; but of course quickly cut off their heads if you've just witnessed one of their atrocities. Don't think this is mean. I've helped rescue more than one on the road. At the same time, they have little purpose here at this stage of life on earth. Don't kill them unless necessary, but if it is necessary, don't hesitate. I've swum where they are and that's scary too.

snapping turtles

I have always been facsinated by turtles and tortises. Before animal crulety regulations in the arly 1950's, I would spend my allowance on the thousands of red sliders sold at dime stores. They would have had a better chance in the wild to survive than at Woolworths and TG&Y.
Those times are long behind us, thank goodness and science.
I have three rescued, as babies, common snappers. One was found newly hatched on our patio, the cats trying to decide whether to eat it or not. Though we realize it is illegal to remove wild animals from the wild, our decision was to try to bring it up to an age it would have more of a chance than nature would provide. (S)he was placed in a 5 gallon aquarium and the endless chore of finding enough worms etc began. So did the weekly scrubbings. To make a long story shorter, the next year , two more babies appeared. They suffer the same fate. Now the oldest is 3, and is 12 inches long, still gets scrubbed to keep their shells clean of scum, algae, and parasites. They spent summers outside in a giant kiddie pool and winter indoors in indivual aquariums. They tend to become obese in the winter, w etry to cut their food down but they DO like dinnertime. Though they have never attempted to snap much less bite, we are VERY conscious that a mistake on our part will lead to an ER visit. Their time has come to be released in our pond. We have been retraining them to take live food by a diet of minnows in the summers so they learn to hunt. It has been an interesting journey. They are said to be amongst the least intelligent animals, however, I can tell you they do know the difference between we two humans, and have not mistaken fingers for food, understand bath time and endure it without struggle or anger. They also tolerant water changes without acting out nor do they fight with one another not even over food. We have noticed the older they become the less they come for the food while we are present as if instinct is telling them danger is there when another animal is around, even us ( or maybe they just associate us with bath time)
enjoyued the article very much and have been wondering where these guys came from. The information about the sequester ability of the females explains how they came to be so far uphill from the river. Thank you

snapping turtles

I have always been facsinated by turtles and tortises. Before animal crulety regulations in the arly 1950's, I would spend my allowance on the thousands of red sliders sold at dime stores. They would have had a better chance in the wild to survive than at Woolworths and TG&Y.
Those times are long behind us, thank goodness and science.
I have three rescued, as babies, common snappers. One was found newly hatched on our patio, the cats trying to decide whether to eat it or not. Though we realize it is illegal to remove wild animals from the wild, our decision was to try to bring it up to an age it would have more of a chance than nature would provide. (S)he was placed in a 5 gallon aquarium and the endless chore of finding enough worms etc began. So did the weekly scrubbings. To make a long story shorter, the next year , two more babies appeared. They suffer the same fate. Now the oldest is 3, and is 12 inches long, still gets scrubbed to keep their shells clean of scum, algae, and parasites. They spent summers outside in a giant kiddie pool and winter indoors in indivual aquariums. They tend to become obese in the winter, w etry to cut their food down but they DO like dinnertime. Though they have never attempted to snap much less bite, we are VERY conscious that a mistake on our part will lead to an ER visit. Their time has come to be released in our pond. We have been retraining them to take live food by a diet of minnows in the summers so they learn to hunt. It has been an interesting journey. They are said to be amongst the least intelligent animals, however, I can tell you they do know the difference between we two humans, and have not mistaken fingers for food, understand bath time and endure it without struggle or anger. They also tolerant water changes without acting out nor do they fight with one another not even over food. We have noticed the older they become the less they come for the food while we are present as if instinct is telling them danger is there when another animal is around, even us ( or maybe they just associate us with bath time)
enjoyued the article very much and have been wondering where these guys came from. The information about the sequester ability of the females explains how they came to be so far uphill from the river. Thank you

Ted: My third grade class in

Ted: My third grade class in SW Florida enjoyed your snapping turtle article. They are interested in all animal subjects. Yank

What a great article, I truly

What a great article, I truly enjoyed it. Glad to see snapping turtles presented in a good light for a change. They are one of my favorite turtles, but then I tend to rot for the underdog. I noticed you are working on a timber rattlesnake book. I am working on a timber rattlesnake survey with our local herpetologist. I have been contemplating writing a book on timbers in Missouri.

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