Photo by: Jerry Mercier
Species: Snapping turtle
Scientific name: Chelydra serpentina
Status: Special concern
Description: Snapping turtles are Ontario’s largest turtle. This turtle is quite distinct and looks quite prehistoric, like a dinosaur. Their carapace (top shell) is tan, olive or back in colour, has three lines that run longitudinally and a serrated edge at the rear. Due to the fact that they rarely leave water, their carapace tends to be covered in algae. The plastron (bottom shell) is small and cross shaped and makes it look like the turtle is too big for its shell and spilling out. Snapping turtles have a long tail with “saw tooth-like” projections made of bony plates running along the tail. Snapping turtles have an extraordinarily long neck, large head and powerful jaws.
Habitat: Unlike most turtles, the snapping turtle doesn’t bask (lay in the sun) much and spends much of its time walking along the bottom of a waterbody, as they are not strong swimmers. This turtle prefers slow moving water. It is found in the soft mud/sand of waterbodies that have tons of vegetation. They can most often be found in large wetlands, ponds and ditches. During the winter months, snapping turtles will hibernate by digging into the mud/sand at the bottom of the waterbody they inhabit.
Breeding: Snapping turtles take a long time to reach maturity, with most females not breeding until they are 17-19 years old. The female will dig a nest in early summer (late May-June) in an area that has loose sandy soils, or gravel, and gets plenty of light (can be quite a distance from the water). Preferred nesting spots tend to be on the side of roads (which is why they are hit by cars quite often), embankments or shorelines. Females will deposit between 40-50 eggs in the nest the dug, and then they will return to the water. There is NO PARENTAL CARE in this species. Snapping turtle eggs are small and round (look like ping-pong balls). If the nest is not depredated (preyed upon), then hatchlings (baby turtles) will emerge from the nest in August-September, usually emerging all at once. The temperature during incubation determines the gender of the hatchlings. The survival rate is low, with only 1% making it to their first year.
Diet: The snapping turtle is an opportunistic omnivour. About 90% of their diet consists of dead animals and plant matter. They will eat aquatic plants, invertebrates, fish, frogs, snakes, small turtles, birds and carrion.
Threats to species: This species is of special concern in Ontario. The main threats are habitat loss and degradation, death due to collisions with cars, depredation of nests (nests commonly predated by raccoons, skunks, possums and foxes), and are still hunted. The biggest threat to adult snapping turtles is cars, especially females moving to nesting grounds. The death of a single female due to a car collisions has significant impacts to the population, e.g., the eggs she had will be dead (40-50 new turtles) and it will take up to 20 year to replace her (don’t mature for 15-19 years).
Threat to humans: Snapping turtles can be aggressive on land, mostly because it is their only line of defense. They cannot hide in their shell, as their bottom shell is tiny, and move to slowly to get away, so the snap, hence their name. A large snapping turtle can bit fingers off, so be careful when you see one on land. If you are trying to help them cross the road and aren’t comfortable picking them up (they need to be picked up a special way, as their necks are so log they can reach around to their back legs-video included under sources), make them bite a large stick and drag them off, or use a shovel.
Snapping turtles will only snap on land.
Snapping turtles can live for a long time; scientists think they may live up to 300 years.
Snapping turtles bioaccumulate toxins in their tissue-this means that any toxins in the environment remain in their tissues until they die, and their meat is unsafe for human consumption.
Macculloch, R.D. 2002. The ROM field guide to amphibians and reptiles of Ontario.
Video of how to safely pick up a snapping turtle-http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=0El-eH9iOqQ