If you bump into a mature Common Snapping Turtle, there’s little doubt that you’re looking at the top-of-the-food chain. Most wild animals flee or go into defensive behavior patterns when confronted by people. A big Common Snapping Turtle may well just hold its ground and glare at you. Or stomp heavily in whatever direction it was going anyway, living-bulldozer style.
If any turtle can be said to have a swagger, this is the one.
And if you happen to get close to it forward of its back legs, you’ll experience a lightning fast strike that will make this turtle’s nickname, Thunder Turtle, suddenly very important. These stubborn, powerful reptiles have a reputation of not releasing anything they bite until they hear thunder.
Of course, that’s an old wives’ tale, but like most, there is truth behind myth – don’t expect this turtle to let go until he’s good and ready. He’s boss, and he looks like he’s been boss for eons.
Here in the South, common snappers have lifespans very similar to ours: sexually mature at age 12, they can live up to 100 years old. They never stop growing over the course of their lives, so these turtles can get big, with their upper shell or carapace reaching 20 inches long and their weight topping out at 75 pounds.
Common snappers are stout, muscular, dark-colored, semi-aquatic turtles. They have broad, smooth upper carapaces with deep saw-toothed indentions or scutes, on the rear edges, above the turtles’ hind legs and tails.
These turtles have large, rounded heads and long, fully retractable necks. Their nostrils are located on the tip ends of their noses, and their eyes are positioned close by, at the top of their heads, which allows these turtles to breathe and see while keeping almost all of their bodies submerged in water or buried in mud. Their mouths are sharp “beaks” – pointed on the front of their upper jaws – that are designed to grab and hold, as well as shear through, whatever they bite.
This turtle has a prehistoric-looking tail, topped with thick triangular ridges like on a dinosaur. Its neck is dotted with fleshy barbules, which are hard to see unless the neck is extended.
There are two snapping turtle species native to Alabama: the Common Snapping Turtle and the Alligator Snapping Turtle. One characteristic that both share is a relatively small, cross-shaped lower carapace that provides much less protection than the upper shell.
The Common Snapping Turtle is native to North America east of the Rocky Mountains, from the Gulf of Mexico to southern Canada. It is most common in the southern U.S. states.
These turtles live in fresh, or sometimes brackish water – lakes, ponds, rivers, creeks, ditches, swamps and marshes – and prefer muddy or silty bottoms with lots of vegetation. That’s because these turtles are sometimes ambush hunters. They often hide in the mud with only their eyes and nostrils showing as they wait for prey to approach.
Common Snapping Turtles will eat almost anything, and they use sight, smell, vibrations and touch to sense prey. Here’s a short list of their menus: fish, birds, small mammals, reptiles, carrion, mollusks, insects, eggs, other turtles, leaves, algae and large amounts of other vegetation. That’s pretty much everything edible in the waters where these turtles live.
Another wives’ tale associated with these snapping turtles is that they do major harm to sport fish species in a lake. To the contrary, scientists have found that Common Snapping Turtles are not able to capture healthy fish; instead, they help improve the health of fish in a body of water by consuming sick, injured or dead fish. They forage, pursue or practice ambush hunting to get their dinners.
When prey is close by, these big, hulking turtles can shoot their heads out of their shells in a flash, extending their long necks and clamping their beaks onto their victims. It is shocking how fast they strike – comparable to a snake’s strike.
In fact, this turtle’s scientific name, Chelydra serpentina, can be translated to “snake-like turtle.”
The Common Snapping Turtle’s jaws can clamp down with a top force of 657 newtons, which sounds impressive until you learn that people can crunch down with the force of 1300 newtons; however, that turtle bite strength, combined with their hard top and bottom beaks, can create an impressive shearing force.
Common Snapping Turtles have longer necks and spikier tails than Alligator Snapping Turtles and, despite their names, Common Snapping Turtles have about four times the bite strength of the Alligator Snapper.
Regardless of their ability to cause injury, Common Snapping Turtles are shy and do their best to avoid people, who in turn, would be wise to follow their examples. In water, common snappers are known to be very calm and docile, but while on land, where most people would have the opportunity to get close to one, they can be aggressive and combative.
These turtles are known to travel great distances over land, especially when they are looking for new bodies of water or places to lay eggs, which is usually done in mid-summer.
It’s not uncommon to find a lone snapper walking on land, though most of their lives are spent in the water.
Snappers mate once a year in late winter and spring, and females lay their eggs in holes dug in open areas near water during the summer months. Most clutches of eggs number 20 to 40, but some nests have been found with more than 100 eggs inside. Incubation can last between 55 days and more than three months, depending on climate. Here in the South, incubation times are on the short end of that range.
Both nests and hatchling turtles are vulnerable to predation by a long list of animals, and many do not survive their first years. Young common snappers have more ridged shells and relatively longer tails than older turtles.
Both the Common Snapping Turtle and its cousin, the Alligator Snapping Turtle, have been hunted for centuries as the primary ingredient for turtle soup, a delicacy contradicting the notion that these turtles are at the top of the food chain.
If you remember that snapping turtles require more than a decade to become sexually mature, that they only mate once a year and that juvenile turtles are high on many predators’ menus, it’s easy to see how hunting these turtles could quickly reduce their population. One hundred and fifty years ago, no big banquet in the eastern U.S. would be complete without a sherry-laced turtle soup. Now it’s almost impossible to find turtle soup on any menu.
Here in Alabama, Common Snapping Turtles with carapace lengths between 4 inches and 12 inches are protected as a nongame species, and it is illegal to harvest them. Today, they are more likely to be killed by people in automobiles as they cross roads during their overland treks.
• Common Snapping Turtles have long necks and picking one up could result in a nasty bite. But picking up a turtle by its tail – to avoid its head – can permanently dislocate its vertebrae and prove fatal to the turtle. The safest way for all concerned is to slide both hands under the end of its shell, so that its tail hangs down between your hands; then, use your thumbs on the top of its shell get a handle on it. When you pick up the turtle, its head will be down and its body will be perpendicular to the ground. Stay away from its head.
• Back when the U.S. was a young country, a political cartoon drawn by Alexander Anderson and published in the nation’s newspapers showed President Thomas Jefferson – who had signed the unpopular Embargo Act – standing behind a Common Snapping Turtle that was clamped onto a merchant’s rear end. Jefferson says, “D__n it. How he nicks 'em.” The merchant says, “Oh! this cursed Ograbme,” which is embargo spelled backwards. Since then, in parts of the U.S., the Common Snapping Turtle has gone by the astutely appropriate nickname “O-grab-me.”
• In 2006, elementary school students in New York voted to make the Common Snapping Turtle the official reptile of the State of New York.
• Common Snapping Turtles have the ability to absorb oxygen through their skin, which allows them to remain active for months under ice-covered ponds in their northern range.