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Common Snapping Turtle, Chelydra serpentina


Snapping turtles are the largest of the freshwater turtles inhabiting the United States. Their general form is well known. The dull, rough carapace or upper shell, with its heavy keels and marginal serrations, the proportionately huge and sinister looking head, and a long, fleshy tail, with an alligator-like crest, combine to make these turtles unique. The plastron, or flat belly portion of the shell, is insignificantly small and narrow and affords comparatively no protection. The snapping turtle's head and tail cannot be completely withdrawn into the shell like their box turtle cousins.

common snapping turtle, Chelydra serpentina
snapping turtle closeup, Chelydra serpentina



Snapping turtles are bold and aggressive hunters. Their massive, sharp-edged jaws are good for grasping many different aquatic and semi-aquatic creatures. The common snapping turtle, Chelydra serpentina, can be larger than any other species of North American turtle, except the alligator snapping turtle, Marcochelys lacertina. Adult specimens of the alligator snapper can reach a weight of 130 to 140 pounds! Large specimens of the common snapper can weigh 40 pounds. Common snapping turtles of that weight would have a carapace, or shell, about fourteen inches long. Both are fresh water inhabitants, and the common turtle has a range from Southern Canada and the United States generally east of the Rocky Mountains; southward through Mexico to Ecuador.

The turtle's shell is very sharply serrated in the rear. There are three blunt, broken keels, rising as tubercles at the rear margins of the shields through which they pass. The shell of old individuals is quite smooth. With young specimens there are radiating lines or ridges from the higher portions of the keels. Very young specimens are exceedingly rough. The plastron is small and narrow, exposing a great amount of the turtle's fleshy parts. The under-surface of the tail is covered with large shields. As with all of the very aquatic turtles, the feet are broad and extensively webbed.

common snapping turtle, Chelydra serpentina
common snapping turtle, Chelydra serpentina

Both front and rear pairs are provided with large and coarse nails. Most characteristic about the snapping turtle is its huge and powerful head. The upper and lower mandibles terminate in strong hooks. Though the eyes are comparatively small, they have very good vision.
The snapping turtle's appearance includes a carapace in dull olive or dark brown, with little or no markings, and a dull yellow plastron. The upper portion of the head is very dark as is the upper surface of the legs and tail which are yellowish underneath.

The snapping turtle is one of the most familiar of the North American reptiles. It inhabits slow running and muddy, rivers, streams, ponds and marshes. Very old specimens are sometimes so bloated and overburdened with fat that their fleshy parts protrude beyond the margin of the shell. In this case, the reptile is almost helpless when removed from water as it is difficult for it to motor about on land. Believe it or not, in early 20th century America, large numbers of snapping turtles were sold in food markets as table meat.

common snapping turtle, Chelydra serpentina
common snapping turtle, Chelydra serpentina

With the exception of the soft-shelled turtles in the genus Trionyx, the snapping turtles are unique among turtles. They defend themselves in a manner similar to snakes by "striking" at enemies. The speed at which they strike rivals that of the rattlesnake. So quick is the movement that the eye is barely able to follow it. Backed up by a pair of sharp-edged, cutting mandibles and jaw muscles of tremendous power, a snapping turtle bite may cause serious injury. The amputation of a finger by a medium-sized specimen would be an accomplishment of no difficulty.

snapping turtle, hissing, biting, Chelydra serpentina
snapping turtle hissing and biting

These turtles typically lie partially embedded in the mud of the river bottom. In this pose, the rapid movements of the head and neck are important for the capture of fish which form the majority of their food. The snapping turtle has a very broad dinner menu. Young waterfowl are stalked from beneath the surface, seized from below, and pulled down to drown and be eaten. The turtle is omnivorous as their diet is mainly meat, but they will also eat plant matter. Snapping turtles only feed underwater, though, they will sometimes grab prey on the bank of a stream and retreat to the water to eat.





snapping turtle
common snapping turtle, Chelydra serpentina

baby common snapping turtle in water, Chelydra serpentina
baby snapping turtle, Chelydra serpentina

Most snapping turtles live up to their name and snap, or try to bite, when handled. A snapping turtle can maneuver its head far over its back, as well as striking a considerable distance sideways. It's dangerous to hold a large one by the shell, and picking a turtle up by the tail could potentially injure it. Small snappers can be handled by grasping them at the rear portion of the shell which keeps fingers away from jaws. Be aware of the fact that they can push their back claws into your hands, making holding onto the shell difficult. The best advice is to leave them be, and not handle them, as you could be seriously injured. The only time handling a snapping turtle is warranted, would be to save it from a bad situation. For example, the author has removed them from roadways.

In the early summer, the female leaves her watery home and prowls around for a place to deposit eggs. She often wanders many feet from the water. After selecting a damp spot, she scoops away dirt to form a hole, into which she crawls, and moves around until loose soil falls back over her. This way she's hidden until up to two dozen eggs are deposited. The eggs are perfectly round, white and have a thin, hard shell. As she crawls out of the nest, the dirt that fell on top of her shell slides off and is left covering the eggs. In 80-90 days, the baby snapping turtles hatch, dig themselves out, and seek watery homes.

baby snapping turtle, Chelydra serpentina
baby snapping turtle, Chelydra serpentina

Being aquatic, the shells of many snapping turtles become coated with moss. Snapping turtles may appear to be flat rocks while partially buried in the muddy bottom of shallow water. They'll remain in this position for hours, poking the extreme tip of their snout from the water to breathe. They're able to remain entirely submerged for long periods and will dive to the deepest portions of rivers where they prowl along the bottom in search of food.
The snapping turtle is a unique and fascinating native American species. Next time you're out by your local lake or pond, keep your eyes peeled for a snout poking up from the depths below.


Andrew Williams / CritterZone.com

snapping turtle, Chelydra serpentina
snapping turtle, Chelydra serpentina

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