The common snapping turtle is one of the most familiar reptiles in North America. Most of us at one time or another have witnessed them sunning themselves on a log, crossing the road or swimming along in a pond or stream. Despite their slowness on land, the snapping turtle is remarkable for its longevity, superior hunting skills, powerful jaws and persistence in traveling long distances in search of food or nesting sites. It sometimes happens that this search for food puts the snapping turtle in conflict with humans as they invade residential ponds, making them a nuisance.
Snapping Turtle Biology and Habitat
The range of the snapping turtle extends across a large swath of the North American continent, from southeast Canada as far west as the Rocky Mountains and from Nova Scotia in the north as far south as Florida.
Snapping turtles have many unique characteristics that distinguish them from other turtles. First, the snapping turtle’s shell has three pronounced ridges that range from black, brown, tan to olive in color. The ridges will be more pronounced in younger turtles. The plastron (belly) of the snapper has a yellowish color. The snapper’s eyes have a black, spotted pattern resembling a cross. The skin of the snapping turtle is covered with tubercles and scales and can be black, grey, brown, tan, olive or yellow, but usually a combination of these colors (the skin tends to be much brighter on the underside).
Like other turtles, snappers have an extremely long lifespan. They usually live about 30 years in the wild, though they have lived up to 47 years in captivity. Snapping turtles can vary in size, depending on their diet. In the wild, snapping turtles can average anywhere from 10 to 35 pounds. In captivity, grossly overfed snappers can reach 75 pounds. Snapping turtles mate during the summer months. A female will lay eggs in shallow, sandy soil, bury them using her hind legs and then abandon them. They will eventually hatch after a 9 to 18 week incubation period. If they do not hatch until too late in the year, newborn turtles may overwinter in the nest. Snapping turtles will travel extremely long distances to find food or a suitable area to lay their eggs.
The common habitats of the snapping turtle are shallow ponds, shallow lakes, or streams; they are not usually found in swamps, though they may inhabit estuaries. Unless they are sunning themselves on logs or rocks, snappers usually will lay on the bottom of the lake or pond, covering themselves with mud and exposing only their head. From this position they will hunt by aquatic “ambush”, waiting until prey move by and then lunging out quickly with their flexible necks and powerful jaws. Snapping turtles are omnivores, feeding on both plant and animal matter. In fact, they are important aquatic scavengers that play an important role in freshwater aquatic ecosystems. They are also active hunters and will prey on anything they can swallow, including many invertebrates, fish, frogs, reptiles (including snakes and smaller turtles), unwary birds, and small mammals. They are plentiful in the Huron River system (Milford, Brighton, Greek Oak, Lakeland, Hamburg, Pinckney, Dexter, Hell, Ann Arbor, Ypsilanti, Monroe) and are found throughout the state.
When Snappers Invade…
In their hunt for food and places to nest, it often happens that snapping turtles will invade residential ponds, including both small garden ponds as well as larger ponds stocked with game fish. In these game ponds, the snapper can deplete the fish population rapidly. Snapping turtles occasionally pose a danger to pet dogs and cats as well. Because snappers are extremely slow when moving on land, cats and dogs can get overly curious and inquisitive. If they get too close and the turtle feels threatened, it may strike; cats have had their legs broken and dogs have had their eyes put out in this way.
The biggest threat posed to humans by snapping turtles is from their potential to bite and scratch during human-turtle interactions. Snappers are usually not aggressive if encountered in the water, but they tend to become belligerent when encountered on land and will hiss when it feels threatened. Under no circumstances should you attempt to pick up a snapping turtle; they have an extremely flexible neck capable of reaching around and biting the hands of the person holding them, even if they are being held by the shell. In fact, snappers can reach their heads all the way to their hind legs to bite. Their jaws are extraordinarily powerful and capable of completely severing a human finger. In addition to the danger posed by their bite, the claws of the snapping turtle are quite sharp and can lacerate the flesh of a person attempting to handle them. One reason put forward for why snappers are so belligerent is because, unlike other turtles, they are too big to hide inside their own shell. Their powerful bite, sharp claws and aggressive attitude compensate for this deficiency.
Creature Control has experience in removing unwanted snapping turtles, whether on land or in a pond. Our technicians use special turtle traps to trap the snappers, after which they are relocated to wetlands away from human habitation. If you are dealing with a snapping turtle on your property, call Creature Control today to learn about removal options.