The Secret Life of Snapping Turtles
Fascinating and ferocious reptile needs our protection.
Quick reflexes and a bad disposition are reasons to avoid confronting a snapping turtle.
When I was growing up in rural Alabama, some people called snapping turtles “thunder turtles.” As the folk tale went, if a snapping turtle bit you, it wouldn’t let go until it heard thunder. While that didn’t turn out to be quite the case, you still don’t want to be bitten by a snapping turtle, no matter when it lets go.
To most folks, the word turtle conjures up one of two images. The first one is that of the slow, plodding, docile cartoon character pitted hopelessly against the fast, agile hare. The other image is that of the snapping turtle. With its hooked beak, ill temperament and quick reflexes, the common snapping turtle (Chelydra serpentina), sometimes called a “snapper” or “loggerhead,” is anything but plodding and docile.
Snapping turtles are among the most widespread turtle species in the Americas, ranging from southern Canada to Ecuador. The common snapping turtle is found throughout the United States east of the Rocky Mountains, except Florida and southern Georgia, where it is replaced by another subspecies, the Florida snapping turtle. This species has also been introduced to a couple of areas in the states of California and Washington. In Canada, snapping turtles are found from Nova Scotia to southeastern Alberta.
What to look for
The common snapping turtle has some distinctive characteristics that set it apart from most other species of turtle, except its closest relative, the alligator snapping turtle. Alligator snapping turtles, however, have a much more restricted range, being found only in the Deep South and the southern Midwest of the United States. If you live anywhere else in the common snapping turtle’s range, you won’t confuse it with any other turtle. At first glance, they look like something out of a movie about prehistoric monsters, and that’s not too far from the truth. Turtles have been around since the time of the dinosaurs, more than 200 million years, and snapping turtles are among the most primitive of all living turtle species.
The snapping turtle’s most noticeable trait is its hooked, parrot-like beak, which is used for both obtaining food and self defense. The neck is long and flexible, giving the turtle the ability to reach from around its shell and deliver a nasty bite to anything (or anyone) that threatens it. There are two small, skin-like projections on the chin of a snapping turtle called barbels.
The top shell, or carapace, is smooth in larger animals, while young snapping turtles have small, tooth-like ridges, called keels. The carapace is made up of a series of bony plates, called scutes. The outer-most scutes in juvenile snapping turtles have a white spot on their underside. The tail also has tooth-like ridges, giving a very primitive appearance. Unlike other turtles, snapping turtles cannot pull their head or legs all the way into their shells for protection. The bottom shell, or plastron, is small and cross-shaped, meaning at the four corner points of the shell the legs are left exposed.
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