The common snapping turtle is probably better known than any other turtle in the
United States. It has a big head, a long neck, and powerful, scissor-like jaws, and
it looks too big for its shell. In young specimens, the upper shell is very rough
and has three well-defined ridges. the color of the shell varies; it can be black,
dark brown or light brown. The bottom shell is yellow or tan, and disproportionately
small. It is easy to recognize a snapping turtle by its saw-toothed tail, which is sometimes
as long as its shell.
Adults measure eight to eighteen inches and weigh ten to thirty-five pounds. Captive
snappers can be fattened to great weights---eighty-six pounds in one case.
Snapping turtles are most often found in freshwater ponds, lakes, swamps and streams. They
prefer quiet water with a mud bottom and lots of aquatic vegetation. They range from
southern Canada to the Gulf of Mexico and from the Atlantic Ocean to the Rocky
A large number of creatures, either alive or dead, form the diet of the snapping turtle:
insects, crayfish, crabs, clams, snails, frogs, toads, snakes, small turtles, birds,
fish and small mammals. These turtles are often disliked by hunters and
fishermen because they compete for game fish and eat ducklings, but studies indicate
that snapping turtles don't capture enough game fish or ducklings to make much
difference. They eat plants as well as animals.
Underwater, snappers are usually not very aggressive. If stepped on, they are apt to simply
pull themselves into their shells. But on land they are fierce. They strike at an intruder,
lunging forward with such vigor that they sometimes rise partly off the ground. They
move forward to strike again and again.
It is best to leave snapping turtles alone. They defend themselves by biting and have been
known to take off a man's finger with one bite. If you do decide to pick one up, a safe way
to do so is to hold out a large stick for it to bite. It will probably hang onto the stick
with its powerful jaws while you carry it. Another safe way to carry a snapping turtle is to
pick it up by the hind legs, with the lower shell facing you, but you must hold the turtle as
far away from your body as possible. If placed in or near the water, a snapping turtle will
lose its aggressiveness and swim away.
Unlike most turtles, snappers rarely bask in the sun. They spend most of their time at the
bottom of a pool or buried in the mud in shallow water, with only nostrils and eyes exposed.
They also hide in brush, under stumps, and in muskrat houses. Sometimes they float along the
water with just their noses and eyes above water. When disturbed they can swim rapidly.
Usually these turtles are sluggish during the day but quite active at night. They are most
active in summer, but they have also been observed crawling under the ice in winter. However,
they usually go into hibernation by late October, burrowing into the mud bottom of a pond, lake,
swamp or stream; taking refuge in a muskrat house or runway; or hiding under a log or debris.
Sometimes large numbers of them hibernate together.
If the pond in which a snapping turtle has been living dries up in summer, the turtle may go
into a torpid state. Or it may choose to move about until it finds more water. Snappers travel
considerable distances, overland as well as in the water.
Courtship can take place from April to November. Observers have reported a courtship ritual in
which snappers face each other and "dance" with sideways motions of the head. Although June is
the most common month for nesting, this can take place anytime from late May through September. The
female usually digs her nest in the early morning or late afternoon. She sometimes goes quite a
distance from the water to dig this nest, or she may dig into a muskrat house. She usually lays
twenty to thirty eggs, which hatch from late August to early October. If the eggs are laid
especially late in the season, they may not hatch until spring.
The nests of snapping turtles are raided by raccoons, foxes, skunks, mink, snakes and crows. The
hatchlings are devoured by herons, bitterns, crows, hawks, bullfrogs, large fish and snakes.
Large numbers of snappers are captured by man for making turtle soup or stew, but the only other enemy
an adult snapper has is the alligator.