There are two types of snapping turtles found in the United States: the common snapping turtle and the alligator snapping turtle. However, there is nothing common about either of them! Both have evolved with/from the dinosaurs and have changed little in the last 50 million years.
Snapping turtle facts
Common snappers are found throughout the eastern two thirds of the United States, with scattered populations (from unwisely released pets) across the country.So what do snapping turtles eat? Common snapping turtles are true omnivores, with half their diet consisting of plants, and the other half including animals like frogs, snakes, and fish. Alligator snappers are located in only a few gulf coast states and are mostly carnivores. They catch their prey in a unique way – wormlike appendages on their tongues lure prey right into their open mouths, and then they “snap” down their jaws to secure their meal!
Both snappers breed in early spring. The females lay their eggs in suitable sunny and sandy areas, often quite a distance from the waters’ edge. Snappers can lay between 20-60 eggs depending upon their size, age, and environmental conditions. They dig a cavity with their rear legs and drop the ping pong ball-sized eggs into the earthen nest and cover and tamp the soil over the eggs. Sex of the baby snapping turtle or hatchlings is determined by the average temperature of the eggs during the incubation period. Those eggs with average temperatures above 80 degrees (F) tend to be female hatchlings and those with lower average temps tend to be males (often remembered with the saying “hot chicks—cool dudes”).
Not every female snapper breeds every year and many turtle nest sites are discovered by raccoons, skunks, and other predators. But the rest will hatch within 60-90 days and the quarter-sized hatchlings usually dig out of the nest at night and head for the nearest water. They generally live in the same area as hatchlings and then yearlings before they have the energy and size to strike off to new areas.
You can tell the sex of a snapping turtle is several ways. First, the females have a deeper shell (for egg storage), and the bottom shell (plastron) is flat or convex. Females also have longer claws on their rear feet for digging nest chambers and a shorter tail. Males conversely can be larger but shallower in shell, have longer front claws for defending territory and their plastron is generally concave so that they can mount a female during the mating ritual. Male’s tails are also longer as their sexual organ is located in the base of the tail.
Snapping turtles have a reputation for being aggressive, but that is only when they are confronted by humans or other animals when they are moving about on land. They are really a defensive creature who tries to avoid contact with anything larger than they can eat. Still, caution should be taken when around snapping turtles on land as their jaws (designed to bite and grab slippery fish and other water animals) they could inflict a substantial wound to a human hand or finger.
Predator as prey
Snapping turtles are unique from all other turtles and tortoises in that they cannot retract their legs and head fully inside their shell. While this can be a disadvantage when confronted by predators like coyotes or dogs, it also allows them to have better and faster locomotion as they can raise their shell up off the ground and move quickly with a better range of movement.
From egg to hatchling to yearling, snappers fall prey to many animals including birds, fish and other reptiles. But once a snapper reaches age 4 or 5, they have much better survivorship and could theoretically live to be 150 years old. Certainly many snappers live to be fifty, seventy-five and 100 years old if they are in good protected habitat.
Become a snapper champion
Sadly many people do not like snapping turtles because they are both a predator and a reptile. Or because they heard they make good turtle soup. So we need to provide snapping turtles with some safe and protected spaces so that they continue to be part of our wetland legacy.
Some ways to help snapping turtles include…
- Be a turtle crossing guard. If you find one moving across a road and it is safe to do so (without endangering yourself or other vehicles), move the turtle across the road in the direction it was headed.
- Use caution when picking up snappers. They can be picked up safely by the rear edges of their shells, but most people opt to use a blanket, shovel, or tree branch to quickly move them across the road.
- Handle snappers with care. You should never pick one up by its tail, as the tail is not designed to support the whole weight of the turtle and you could cause internal injury. Discourage the trapping, eating, or sales of any species of snapping turtles. Snapping turtles provide a great service to ponds and rivers by cleaning up dead fish/animals and providing control on slower-moving species like carp and other bottom feeders.
Rather we should enjoy snapping turtles for the increasingly rare and wonderful reptile that they are.