“Yeah, I’m never swimming here again”. This is a common reaction from people upon seeing a particularly large Common Snapping Turtle (Chelydra serpentina) in any body of water. I am beginning to lose count of how many people have expressed such sentiment to me over the years. As if on cue, as I began to write this article, I received a text message from my cousin saying she tried to take a dip in a local swimming hole, but chickened out when she saw a snapper. What I tell people in response is that if they’ve ever been swimming in freshwater in New England it is almost certain they have been swimming with large snapping turtles and didn’t know it. While their size, demeanor, and ability to deliver powerful bites is intimidating, they are quite docile animals underwater, opting to avoid confrontation rather than pursue it. If snapping turtles were swimming around biting off people’s toes, it’s something we’d hear about all the time. So far, we’ve never heard of that happening.
Here in Vermont, Common Snapping Turtles are one of the most widespread species of reptile and probably occur in every town ranging from the lowlands of the Lake Champlain Valley all the way up to high elevation mountain ponds in the coldest parts of the state. Indeed, there probably aren’t many bodies of water in the state without at least a snapping turtle or two, but most people only see them in the spring when they leave water to lay their eggs, crossing roads and lawns in the process.
Snapping turtles are almost entirely aquatic and usually just leave the water to lay their eggs, though they do sometimes travel over land to move from one body of water to another. This seems especially true when a good place to forage, such as a small pond or wetland, is not suitable for overwintering due to a high risk of oxygen depletion during the winter. They are habitat generalists and can make a living in anything from fast flowing shallow streams to large lakes and stagnant wetlands, and are dietary generalists too, eating almost anything they can fit in their mouths. Snapping turtles also live a long time, with specimens in captivity reaching about 50 years of age. While obtaining reliable age estimates of wild snappers is challenging, they quite likely can survive much longer than that.
On land, snapping turtles use their size and strength to deter would-be predators, including thoughtful humans attempting to move them across roads to safety. You’ll hear stories of snapping turtles biting through broom handles an inch thick, and while those stories are generally exaggerated, there is no mistaking the fact that snappers have incredibly powerful jaws. I like to think of their jaws as nature’s version of a vice grip made out of razor blades.
Creatures of habit, adult snapping turtles generally have a routine that they stick to. One turtle, which turned out to be the largest snapper ever documented in Vermont, passes under a culvert I often fish from most summer afternoons around 3:30 and heads back to the lake again around 6. I can only assume that particular turtle visits other parts of its home range with the same sort of regularity and that I only glimpse a small piece of an otherwise intricate daily routine as it passes under my feet. Such behavior is quite typical of turtles, which is why it is so important to leave them where you find them, despite the strong temptation many people have to take them home, show the kids, and then release them somewhere else. If you do see a turtle crossing a road and wish to help, just move it in whatever direction it was headed, even if that direction doesn’t make much sense to you. Moving them the other way, or to an entirely new location, will often result in the turtle trying to get back to the same spot again and crossing the road anyway.
While populations of snapping turtles appear stable in Vermont, that is not the case everywhere else. Because snapping turtles can travel considerable distances to lay their eggs, females may cross roads in the process and collisions with cars represent a major source of mortality for adult turtles. In some parts of their range, snapping turtles are also under heavy pressure from commercial harvest and many snapping turtles are exported to China for human consumption. In places with greater numbers of humans, predators such as raccoons have unnaturally high populations and, while such animals live mostly off of human garbage, they also eat turtle eggs. As beaches are increasingly developed, which limits available nesting habitat for turtles, those subsidized populations of raccoons and other predators can have devastating impacts to egg and hatchling survival rates. With egg and juvenile survival rates decreasing at the same time adult mortality rates are on the rise, it is to be expected the species will decline through much of its range.
I’ve never had the opportunity to work with snapping turtles professionally, but greatly enjoy each of my encounters with the species. When possible, I use those encounters as teachable moments to help the people around me better understand these magnificent animals, which truly are living fossils (turtles as a whole have roamed the earth relatively unchanged since the early days of the dinosaurs). All it takes is one close up look at a snapping turtle to deeply appreciate how ancient and deserving of respect these animals truly are.