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Reptiles - Snapping Turtle

Region: North America

Class: Reptilia

Order: Chelonia

Family: Chelydridae

Genus: Chelydra

Scientific Name: Chelydra serpentina serpentina

Description: Length of carapace: up to 40 cm. Weight: up to 35 kg. The snapping turtle has a rough carapace, markedly serrated at the rear edge. This becomes smooth with age and older individuals are usually covered with algae and easily mistaken for underwater rocks. The plastron is almost cross-shaped and very small, leaving much of their underparts unprotected as they are unable to tuck their heads and legs back into their shell to avoid predators. Thus, the snapping turtle will adopt an aggressive stance and lunge at potential predators when it feels threatened on land. When in the water it is far more likely to flee and contrary to popular belief, a swimmer is not likely to be bitten. The head is large, the snout short and both tips of the powerful jaws are sharply hooked. There are two barbels on its chin and the skin on its neck is rough and warty. Its tail is thick at the base, as long or longer than the carapace and is covered with warty tubercles. The colour ranges from light brown to almost black.

Distribution: From Nova Scotia, New Brunswick and southern Quebec west to southeastern Alberta and southward east of the Rocky Mountains to southern Georgia and the Texas coast in the United States. It is found from sea level to altitudes over 2,000 m in North America.

Habitat: Generally large bodies of fresh water, both lakes and rivers, but it may also be found in small streams, ponds and marshes, preferring slow-moving water with a soft muddy bottom and plenty of aquatic vegetation or submerged brush and tree trunks for cover. It is mostly found in shallow waters but it may also occur along the edges of deep lakes and rivers.

Food: Chiefly carnivorous, eating fish, fowl, frogs, insects, crustaceans and any other small animals that it can catch. It will also eat some vegetation, especially when young. Carrion is often consumed. Small prey is swallowed whole but larger food is held in the mouth and torn apart with its long foreclaws. Feeding usually occurs underwater but may occur on land.

Reproduction and Development: The nesting period is from May or earlier in the south to mid-June or later in the north. The female usually lays 20-40 eggs (a clutch of 104 was recorded in the United States) in soft earth, sand or gravel. She will dig a flask-shaped nest with her hind feet on a sandy beach or field, or occasionally an abandoned muskrat lodge will be used. The half white, half pinkish eggs are round with a hard, brittle shell, 23-33 mm in diameter and 5-15 g in weight. They are highly relished by raccoons and other predators. Incubation is anywhere from 55 to 125 days, with between 75 and 95 being the most common. During this period the temperature of the incubating eggs determines the sex of the hatching turtles. Life span of a snapping turtle is about 28-40 years.

Adaptations: The snapping turtle is one of the more aquatic species of turtle, spending most of its time lying on the bottom buried in the mud in the shallow water, with only its eyes and nostrils exposed. When moving in the water it usually prefers to walk along the bottom or float lazily just beneath the water surface with just its eyes and nostrils exposed, but it does have webbed toes and can swim rapidly when frightened. Most enter hibernation by late October, burrowing into the mud or occupying muskrat lodges or burrows. They become active again in March in the south, and as late as May in Canada.

Threats: Man is the chief predator of the adults, killing them both for food and due to misguided beliefs that they attack swimmers and prey on game fish and the duck population. Many animals, birds and reptiles eat the eggs and the young; alligators, otters, coyotes and bears eat the adults.

Status: Common

References: "In Praise of Turtles" by Bob Johnson "The Turtles of Canada" by Barbara Froom "Turtles of the United States and Canada" by C.H. Ernst, J.E. Lovich, and R.W.Barbour