Vermont. October 01, 2009.
The idea was to move along the shore toward a large bass that just splashed in the shallow water. The muck bottom made wading tricky and it took so much concentration the turtle was unseen the first time I waded by it. The bottom proved to be too big a challenge and forced a turnaround. Going back downstream the turtle slipped out of the silt plume just as my right foot was about to step on it and it took slapstick gyrations on my part to keep me and the turtle safe from each other. I suddenly remembered two important things about snapping turtles: snappers don’t back down and snappers don’t let go.
This snapping turtle, Chelydra serpentina had an average shell for an adult, 14 inches long with its prehistoric bumpy tail almost as long as its shell. As my foot hovered in the air the snapper crawled smoothly away under water. This was typical of a snapper, living in slow moving fresh water with a muddy bottom and shore vegetation for concealment buried in the mud with only its nostrils and eyes exposed in order to ambush prey. Snappers are omnivores and mainly eat carrion but do eat all kinds of plants, birds, fish and small animals but seemingly not fly fishermen.
Males are larger than females and the largest can grow to 18.5 inches long and weigh up to 85 pounds. Turtles have no vocal cords so they hiss or grunt. The range of the snapping turtle covers pretty much the entire US east of the Rocky Mountains. Large males defend 10 acre +/- fixed home ranges that smaller turtles avoid. Female territories are smaller and overlap the males.
Snapping turtles live up to 30 years. They are vulnerable to predators only as hatchlings when their carapace is less than 3 inches or during hibernation. Snappers hibernate in shallow water that does not freeze to the bottom, buried in the mud and usually in groups. Their body temperature drops to near freezing. Hibernating turtles can get oxygen by pushing their head out of the mud and allowing gas to exchange through the membranes of their mouth and throat. If they cannot get enough oxygen they will utilize anaerobic means to burn stored fats. Hibernating snappers are vulnerable to predators since they cannot move quickly to defend themselves.
After mating that takes place summer through fall the females store the fertilized eggs internally until the spring when she digs a hole in sandy soil and lays up to 80 inch long eggs. The hatchlings peck out of their shells in about three months and dig their way out of the nest. Birds, big fish, raccoons, snakes, skunks and bigger turtles are predators. If snappers cannot use a stream to migrate between ponds or to nesting sites they will land walk and that leads them to cross roadways.
The near miss of that fateful step recalled another occasion when a snapper acted well, like a snapping turtle. As I slowed down for the snapper in the middle of the road, I blew my car horn. At full stop I blew the horn again to prod the turtle to move. Instead of moving away it turned toward the car and began walking with its body language shouting, “Me move you have to be kidding! You better get out of my way and I don’t like horns!” I got out of the car to see if it would fright at seeing me and move off. Instead it continued toward the car and hissed at me.
Given the traffic on this road it was likely this snapper was going to get squashed. Snapping turtles do not appreciate being handled and can maneuver their head over its back and a considerable distance sideways. It is dangerous to hold a large one like this one by the shell. I found a stick, edged it toward that massive black head and SNAP, it had the stick clamped tight in its mouth. This one was too heavy for me to lift so I lift pulled it across the road and down toward the pond. As I started to walk away it turned and started moving toward me hissing. It obviously didn’t know or care that I was being a Good Samaritan. Some people carry “snapper sticks” in their cars for exactly this type of roadway emergency.
Snappers have been around for 200 million years. A 1993 Smithsonian article describes snappers as “creatures who are entitled to regard the brontosaur and mastodon as brief zoological fads.” They are not cute, cuddly or charismatic and are aggressive when threatened on land but they are one of the wonders of the Connecticut River watershed. Look for them sunning on downed trees or flat rocks the next time you are out and about on our river and be watchful when wading in the mud.
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David Deen is River Steward for the Connecticut River Watershed Council. CRWC has been an articulate voice for the Connecticut River for more than half a century.