Both my daughter and her husband are turtle people. By that I mean they collect turtle replicas — not the real thing. As it happens, she collects land turtles, he, sea turtles. (Feet, as opposed to flippers — and now you know as much as I do about either.) Recently they were hiking locally and came across a turtle Danny deemed worthy of a photograph, which he sent me. He also tried to assist it by pouring water on it, but his good Samaritan efforts were rebuffed by what turned out to be an annoyed snapping turtle.
Judging from the picture, I’d hazard a guess that this was a female snapper, out of her usual watery habit to lay eggs, it being the season. Danny was pretty excited about her size. Common snapping turtles (Chelydra serpentina) have a size anywhere from 8 to 19 inches and can weigh up to 35 pounds (there is actually a record of 75 pounds — this one wasn’t.) Their color ranges from dark brown to almost black, and they have long tails and long necks, the latter giving rise to the name, “serpentina.” Let it also be a warning to anyone who wants to move said turtle: they have considerable reach when they are in a snapping mood.
Actually, snapping turtles would much rather avoid you, given a choice between flight or fight. They are mostly aquatic and can be found in a variety of habitats featuring water: lakes, streams, swamps, bogs, preferably with slow moving water and soft muddy or sandy bottoms where they can sink and wait for prey. As omnivores, they feed on plants (about a third of their diet), insects, spiders, worms, fish — also small mammals, snakes, even other turtles. Typical modus operandi is to lie on the bottom or float motionless, then ambush prey by lunging at high speed using their powerful jaws to seize it.
Found in the water, snapping turtles can spend three or four hours continuously under water, where they are reasonably peaceful and harmless. The problems arise when you encounter one on land. Snapping turtles mate starting in April, and females will then haul themselves ashore during nesting season — late spring to early summer. They will often travel long distances from water, looking for a sandy spot in which to dig and then leave 20-30 eggs in the concave nest. Mom will cover this clutch with sand or mud to provide proper incubation.
And this is when the trouble starts. Snapping turtles on land can be vicious when they feel threatened. Unlike other turtles, snappers cannot protect themselves by pulling their heads, limbs and tails into their shells. The shell that covers their bellies is called a plastron. (The upper shell is the carapace.) The plastron does not cover the whole underside, and it has been suggested that this “deficit” could be a reason for their aggressive behavior.
What you have facing you, then, is a critter with strong, beak-like jaws on a head attached to a long neck that can be whipped around to inflict a serious bite. And he — or more likely she — has got a serious attitude problem. If you hear one hiss, walk away! The trouble is, people don’t. They’re curious or want to help the turtle to a more secure location. Okay, if you find one crossing a road, I get that. Hold the turtle with both hands, each in front of the back legs, letting the tail hang down in between, head facing away. Hang on tight and keep an eye on that head! She’s not called “serpentina” for nothing. Take her across the road in the direction she was going; if you set her back where she started, she’ll just repeat. Do not pick her up by the tail — that can cause permanent injury. And then be done. Electing not to “rescue,” Danny and Sarah continued on their hike. A wise choice.