Stegosaurus tails and extendable necks: Snapping turtles come out of their shell
Most turtles in Massachusetts are protected, but the snapping turtle (Chelydra serpentina) is not. You are most likely to see these large reptiles now and in the summer months when they travel to and from their nesting areas on land. Because adult snapping turtles are apex predators, they have few enemies except humans. Snapping turtles help keep waterways clean by eating diseased and decaying animals.
In earlier times, Americans ate turtles. According to legend, John Adams and his wife, Abigail, celebrated July 4, 1776, with a bowl of turtle soup. George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, Benjamin Franklin, Aaron Burr and Alexander Hamilton were all members of the Hoboken Turtle Club, a social organization that convened once a year to feast on turtles and imbibe large numbers of cocktails. The club started when turtles devoured the prized European chickens of John Stevens, a wealthy former sea captain who lived in a riverfront estate in Hoboken. These feasts lasted for several days, and over the years, club members consumed all of the local turtles.
Eventually, as turtles across the nation became scarcer, roast pig became the focal point of summer celebrations. This led to our modern tradition of summer cookouts and barbecues. Interest in eating turtle soup petered out in the mid-1900s as factory farms made beef, pork and chicken the staple meats for American consumers.
Snapping turtles can be 19 inches long, the largest turtles in the commonwealth. Unlike smaller turtles, which bask on logs out of water, snappers often bask by floating with just the top of the shell exposed. In shallow water, these turtles may lie in the mud with just the head visible at the pond’s surface. Snapping turtles are omnivorous predators and scavengers who do much of their foraging at night. They can hold their breath for up to three hours.
If you encounter one of these turtles on land, beware: It is out of its element and likely to be frightened. It can’t hide, so it may feel its best defense is to bite. If you encounter one of the turtles in a pond, however, the turtle is docile and will most likely swim away from you and retreat by burying itself in mud at the bottom of the pond.
Snapping turtles emerge from hibernation in April and come onto land during nesting season – May through June. The female searches for a sunny nesting site in bare, sandy soil. When she finds a suitable site, she digs a nest with her hind feet and lays 20 to 40 eggs. Hatchlings emerge from August through October. The gender of snapping turtles depends on egg temperature: Temperatures from 73 degrees to 81 produce male; lower and higher temperatures produce females. Soft, sandy soil tends to be the right temperature to produce a mix of males and females.
The time it takes for the eggs to hatch depends on temperature too, with 75 to 95 days being typical. After the eggs hatch, the tiny turtles are on their own – parents do not help raise the young, but the hatchlings instinctively head straight for the bright illumination of their home pond. These baby turtles do not yet know how to swim, so many drown while trying to figure it out.
Snapping turtles have a high mortality rate when young, but once they become older the mortality rate in rural areas is low. These turtles do not reach sexual maturity until they are 10 years old, and some may live for 50 years while never stopping growing; you can tell their comparative age by size. You may have heard of Chonkosaurus, a 40- to 50-year-old snapping turtle spotted on the Chicago River, probably warming itself after emerging from hibernation.
One of the most impressive things about snapping turtles is their neck, which is much longer than it appears at first glance. Some snappers have necks that can stretch the length of their shell. A snapping turtle can sneak up on fish or floating ducklings, for example, thrust out its long neck and quickly seize the prey. Snappers are not picky about what type of meat they eat, but as they get older, they become more vegetarian.
Snapping turtles are relics. The first ones appeared on Earth more than 200 million years ago and, just like the ancient stegosaurus, have tails studded with bony plates. In winter, snappers bury themselves in the mud, slow their metabolism and, since the surface of their waterway is often frozen, absorb dissolved oxygen through the membranes of their mouth and throat. Not all snapping turtles hibernate, though.
Snapping turtle populations are declining due to habitat loss and collisions with cars in urban areas. A study in Ontario, Canada, monitored a snapping turtle population near a roadway. The turtle population decreased to 177 turtles in 2002 from 941 turtles in 1985 due to car collisions. In some parts of the United States, people capture snapping turtles for export to China for human consumption. Because of these dangers, scientists in Massachusetts have petitioned the state to enact protections for this reptile, since snapping turtles are an important part of Massachusetts wetland ecosystems.
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Jeanine Farley is an educational writer who has lived in the Boston area for more than 30 years. She enjoys taking photos of our urban wild things.
This post was updated April 26, 2023, to correct the spelling of Jeffrey Offermann’s name.