Article and photos by Linda Hagan, Maryland Master Naturalist Intern
When asked if I would like to write articles for the Fountain Rock blog post, I first thought about all the cute and cuddly creatures I could write about. After giving it some thought I decided everyone loves cute and cuddly; maybe I should start writing about the NOT so cuddly creatures in our environment. Many of those reside at Fountain Rock Park and Nature Center. My first blog post was about the Eastern Rat snake since they will be emerging from their hibernation dens in a few weeks. Many people find snakes, especially large snakes like the Eastern Rat snake, anything but cuddly. Today I want to talk about the Eastern Snapping Turtle. Certainly not cuddly, some might say just plain ugly, bad-tempered, can take a man’s finger off with one snap of its jaws. Well yes, but let’s inform ourselves a little bit more before we decide we don’t want them in our human “narrow vision” of what the natural world should have living in it.
There are only two living members of genera, our Eastern Snapping Turtle and the Alligator Snapping Turtle not found in Maryland. So you might say we are privileged to have one of the only two of this family living in our state. The Eastern Snapping Turtle is Maryland’s largest freshwater turtle. It has a large head where it’s eyes set high on top for peering out from the the mud, vegetation and water to look for prey. They can stretch their heads in any direction and with powerful jaws that can snap shut very quickly. It has a long, thick tail almost as long as it’s carapace with a row of enlarged scales. They have heavy claws on their limbs. You might say they have a very prehistoric look to them. Our own living dinosaur.
The carapace (top shell) can be black, tan, gray or brown and can grow up to 20” in length. Younger adults will have a ridge on top of the carapace and in older adults it will be less pronounced and smooth. Older adults may have algae growing on the carapace as well. This becomes good camouflage making it harder to see them among the vegetation or logs they can be hiding under. I think you can notice from the photos how well they can blend into their surroundings as they lay motionless in the water with merely their eyes and nostrils above the water. The plastron (bottom shell) is yellowish to tan giving the appearance it has been stuffed in a suit a few sizes too small.
Snapping turtles live in almost any shallow, mud to sand bottom freshwater ponds and lakes, to brackish habitats that have slow moving water. Their average weight is 20-30 lbs, but they can weight as much as 40-60 lbs. That is one huge snapping turtle I wouldn’t want to tangle with.
Snapping turtles have a reputation for being bad-tempered, but that seems to be only the case when they are out of the water and are of course more vulnerable. They will hiss and yes bite if threatened. In the water they will normally swim away from humans as most animals will do. Truly most wild animals don’t want human contact.
On a outing to Fountain Rock last fall I took my grandsons down to the quarry pond to see the different types of turtles that live there. You can purchase turtle pellets to feed the turtles during the warmer months. Upon walking across the board walkway that surrounds the pond on one side, we noticed turtles coming up to the surface everywhere. They felt the vibrations as we walked across the walkway. As we fed the pretty Painted turtles and Red-Eared sliders we noticed a large object also surfacing. Yes there, right up front staring at us was a quite large snapping turtle. I called his expression a bit bemused as it appeared he wondered why we were not also throwing some of those delicious pellets his way. We obliged and next thing we knew several others were surfacing and waiting for their fair share. As we walked down the walkway they continued to follow us hoping for more handouts. I think that shows just how easily they adapt to
seeing humans and don’t mind some tender morsels.
Snapping turtles are “omnivores” and their diet consist of: fish, insects, aquatic vegetation, frogs, birds, turtles, snakes, worms, leeches, tadpoles and carrion. Nowhere could I find fingers and toes as part of their natural diet.
One thing we need to realize is although adult snapping turtles have few predators such as alligators and humans, which harvest them to make turtle soup, their young become easy prey for other animals. A large percent of their eggs are eaten by raccoons, foxes and skunks. The hatchlings become prey for large fish, water snakes, wading birds such as the Blue Heron, bullfrogs, hawks, animals, even adult snapping turtles themselves will dine on the young. The snapping turtles may eat some of the cute, little cuddly creatures we all love, but in turn their young, which are quite cute in their own way, become food for other creatures.
Snapping turtles mate in the water April-November. About a year ago while taking my grandsons on a golf cart ride around a near by field, we came upon a large snapping turtle. Our reaction was one of surprise. What was a snapping turtle doing in the middle of a field. After researching I learned this was not unusual. The female will leave the water to find a nesting site. This can be near the shoreline or in a field a distance from the water such as this one was. This also explains why we see so many snapping turtles crossing the roads. They may cross roads to seek out nesting sites. Many become road kill during this time. If you see one, please by no means pick it up by the tail to move it. This can cause great harm to the turtle. Don’t get anywhere near the head, and remember it can stretch its head far out and quickly turn to snap. Use a stick to coach it along, or simply wait for it to get across. Many a nature lover keeps a shovel in their car to move turtles and snakes out of harms way. The eggs are laid mid-May to mid-June. The eggs are leathery annd white, round, ping pong ball size and the nest can contain 20-40 eggs.
Hopefully you can appreciate the importance these not so cuddly, sometimes fowl-tempered turtles play in our ecosystem. I like to think of
them as “crotchety” old cowboys like those in the Western movies of my youth.