Exploring The Last Green Valley – The Ancient Snapping Turtle
The Ancient Snapping Turtle
On the far-away island of Sala-ma-Sond,
Yertle the Turtle was king of the pond.
A nice little pond. It was clean. It was neat.
The water was warm. There was plenty to eat.
The turtles had everything turtles might need.
And they were all happy. Quite happy indeed.
From Yertle the Turtle by Dr. Seuss
On my sixth birthday I was given two pet-store turtles and so began my lifelong fascination of turtles. I have a childhood filled with turtle memories.
I remember vividly the time my mother stopped her car when she noticed a turtle in the middle of the road. We both got out and she picked it up and handed it to me. She helped me look it over closely, pointing out its markings and colors. We put it down in the grass near the road and when we got home she showed me her field guide to amphibians and reptiles. We had found the semi-aquatic spotted turtle.
Along with my brothers and neighborhood pals, I fished our local ponds and searched for frogs and turtles. We frequently found painted turtles since they seemed so plentiful and were usually found sunning themselves on rocks and logs.
One time I saw what appeared to be the end of a log floating and sticking out of the water just a few inches above the surface. My older brother pointed out that it was the snout of a large snapping turtle – the mysterious monster of the deep muddy ponds. Suddenly it dropped back into the water and vanished in a swish of brackish water.
It was the incessant barking of our dog Rory that brought me to my first close encounter with a snapping turtle. I went outside to see what the commotion was and discovered he was barking at very large snapping turtle that had ventured into our yard. The length of its top shell (carapace) was about 10 inches from front to back and it raised itself on its front legs and hissed at Rory. My dad grabbed the dog, put him in the house, and then enticed the snapper to bite down on the wood end of a rake handle. With the turtle firmly attached to the handle he dragged it out of the yard to the edge of the woods. We left it there and it eventually ambled off. All that was left was a nasty bite mark on the rake handle. From that day on the snapper became my favorite turtle and that distinction continues to this day.
There are many good guide books on amphibians and reptiles and I have two that I use — the Stokes guide and the Audubon Society guide. The Stokes guide contains fewer amphibians and reptiles, but provides more detailed information on the included species. The Audubon guide provides excellent full color pictures, good information, and describes most all of the reptiles and amphibians in North America.
If you’re looking for information on snapping turtles and don’t have a guidebook, you can always rely on the internet. I frequently use the Connecticut Department of Energy and Environmental Protection (CT DEEP) Fact Sheets for information on our region’s flora and fauna. Go to www.ct.gov/deep and use the search tab for the snapping turtle fact sheet and other information. Here are some key bits of information from CT DEEP:
- Connecticut’s largest freshwater turtle is easily recognized by its dark carapace (upper shell) with a deeply serrated back margin, and a small plastron (bottom shell) that does not completely cover all of the animal’s flesh. The carapace measures 8-12 inches on an average adult, and the turtles can weigh between 10-35 pounds.
- Snapping turtles have long tails, often measuring as long as or longer than the carapace, and covered with bony plates. They also have a large head, long neck, and a sharp, hooked upper jaw. This hard beak has a rough cutting edge that is used for tearing food.
- As omnivores, snapping turtles feed on plants, insects, spiders, worms, fish, frogs, small turtles, snakes, birds, crayfish, small mammals, and carrion. Plant matter accounts for about a third of their diet. Snapping turtles often hang motionless in the water and ambush their prey by lunging forward with the head at high speed, seizing prey with powerful jaws.
- The nesting season in southern New England occurs in late May through June. Snapping turtles rarely leave their aquatic habitat except during the breeding season, at which time females travel great distances in search of a place to dig a nest and lay eggs.
- One clutch of eggs is laid in May or June. With powerful hind legs, the female digs a shallow bowl-shaped nest in a well-drained, sunny location. Over a period of several hours, she lays approximately 20 to 40 creamy white, ping-pong ball-sized eggs. After covering the eggs, the female returns to the water, leaving the eggs and hatchlings to fend for themselves. Turtle nests are often preyed upon by raccoons, skunks, and crows. As many as 90% of the nests are annually destroyed by predators.
- Hatching takes approximately 80 to 90 days, but the hatch date can vary depending on temperature and other environmental conditions. Generally, hatchlings emerge from their leathery egg in August through October by using a small egg tooth to break open the shell. When the young hatch, they dig out of the nest and instinctively head to water. Young turtles at hatching are about an inch long with soft shells and they must make it to water without being preyed upon by raccoons, skunks, foxes, dogs, birds, and snakes.
- Usually docile in water, snapping turtles can be aggressive during the breeding season when they are found traveling across land. This is usually when most people encounter snapping turtles. If you find a snapping turtle in your yard, treat it with the respect it deserves. Snapping turtles have powerful, sharp jaws. Keep children and pets away from the turtle until it has finished laying its eggs and has left the area.
- Unlike most other turtles, snapping turtles rarely bask on land, but instead bask on the water’s surface. They survive winters in Connecticut by hibernating when temperatures dip below 41°F. They burrow into mud and leaf debris in shallow water or under logs and overhanging banks. After emerging from hibernation, turtles begin feeding and searching for mates. Snapping turtles can live up to 40 years or more.
By far my most memorable encounter with snapping turtles was more than 40 years ago. It was a late August morning and I was walking to my summer job as a greens keeper at a local golf course when I noticed a few baby snapping turtles run over on the road.
In a sandy area next to the road I discovered several baby snapping turtles that had not been run over, with some still exiting what clearly was the nest. With the nearest pond over a half mile away, I decided to help get them safely to water and to keep the newborns from becoming morning commuter road kill.
That morning it was relatively cool and I was wearing an old army field jacket with big pockets that buttoned at the top. I stuffed as many of the baby turtles as I could find into my pockets and continued on my way to work.
I didn’t tell my fellow greens keepers about the turtles or what I was up to. That morning as I made my rounds to hand-rake sand traps, I stopped at several of the golf course ponds and small streams and placed one or two baby turtles at the edge of each waterbody. That morning I was the “Johnny Appleseed” of snapping turtles, seeding the ponds with the living contents of my old army jacket.
That late August day was over 40 years ago. I hope that somewhere in a pond in my hometown there is a large, very large snapping turtle that spent the first morning of its life traveling to the safety of its new home in the pocket of my old coat.
We live in a region full of amazing flora and fauna. I hope you’ll join me in appreciating it, caring for, enjoying it all, and helping to pass it on to a new generation. Perhaps someday you’ll find a nest of freshly-hatched turtles. I hope you’ll take the time to help the youngsters on their way.
Bill Reid is the Chief Ranger of The Last Green Valley National Heritage Corridor and has lived in the region for more than 30 years. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
The Norwich Bulletin is granted first serial rights and associated electronic rights to publish the preceding article. The Last Green Valley, Inc. retains all other rights to the work.
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