The snapping turtle is one of those animals that I’ve always known existed, and always heard about, but never knew anything about. I was always told that a pond at Granville Island in Vancouver had snapping turtles in it, and was fascinated by them (though this may not have been true – their natural range doesn’t include B.C.). So today when I was trying to think about a reptile to blog about, that old memory of standing by the pond and watching the turtles go by popped into my head.

Common snapping turtles are just that – common and snappy. And I don’t mean snappy as in a well-dressed turtle. I mean it in the very nasty way of wanting to bite things all the time. Because snapping turtles do bite quite viciously – though curiously only when out of the water. When swimming, they are docile creatures. Maybe they have self esteem issues and prefer to be in the water where people can’t get a good look at them. That would also explain why they prefer brackish, muddy ponds for their habitat. They range from southern Canada to Florida, and can withstand a surprising variety of temperatures for a cold-blooded animal. Even in Canada, when ponds freeze over, it’s been shown that some snapping turtles remain active beneath the ice of the ponds they inhabit. That’s one brave little turtle.

Ugly little spud, isn’t he? Image By Dakota L. – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0

Snapping turtles grow to between about 25-50 cm, and usually weigh from 4.5 −16 kg. There are startling exceptions, such as one wild caught animal who weighed 34 kg, and animals in captivity tend to get immensely fat and can reach almost 40 kg. Obviously obese turtles have some mobility issues, but even normal sized snapping turtles can’t fit into their shell. That’s actually why they snap – they don’t have the normal defence mechanism that other turtles do.

Although they are omnivorous, and are important in the ecosystem as scavengers, snapping turtles will actively hunt many different types of aquatic prey. They often do this by burying themselves under the mud at the bottom of the pond, with only their nostrils sticking out. When an unlucky fish swims by, the turtle reaches out and gulps it down. The turtle can stay this way in shallow ponds for a long while – when it needs to breathe the animal simply stretches out its long neck and sticks its nose out of the water. The nostrils of the snapping turtle are at the very tip of its head, making a perfect snorkel.

Close up of a snapping turtle’s face. Notice the nostrils, right on the tip of the snout. Very useful for an aquatic animal. Image By USFWSmidwest – Common Snapping Turtle, Public Domain

Mating occurs anywhere between April and November, with peak breeding in the summer months. Mates communicate by waving their legs at each other, which seems odd, but it seems to get the job done. Females can store sperm for a long time, sometimes even across seasons. She uses what she needs and then saves the rest, which is a very smart way of doing things. As with most turtles, there is no parental care after birth, with the very vulnerable hatchlings left to fend for themselves.

I generally like most species of turtles, and find them kind of adorable. I have to say though that the snapping turtle just doesn’t quite fit the bill of ‘cute’. I have a firm appreciation for them, but they are definitely pretty ugly. Poor guys. Still, they do alright for themselves, so kudos to them.

Cover image By User:Moondigger – Own work, CC BY-SA 2.5