Snapping turtles are members of the Chelydridae family of turtles and are native to the Americas. They do not exist in the wild anywhere else. In this family, there are only two surviving types of turtle: Chelydra, known as the common snapping turtle, and Macrochelys, known as the alligator snapping turtle. They are both very large freshwater turtles with a spiky, almost prehistoric appearance, and there’s a reason for that! The earliest known member of the Chelydridae family, Emarginachelys, dates back to the Late Cretaceous period.
The A to Z of Snapping Turtles
Both common and alligator snapping turtles are rarely seen away from a water source unless they are traveling to lay eggs. Unlike other types of turtles, snapping turtles are unable to retract their head and legs into their shells. Snapping turtles, despite their menacing looks, are usually docile towards humans. This does not mean that they will not attack if threatened, but it is unlikely to happen if you simply leave them alone.
The Common Snapping Turtle
The common snapping turtle, or Chelydra Serpentina, is a large breed of turtle that inhabits all of the Eastern portions of North America. It ranges in size from 8 to 14 inches long (20-36 cm), and the average weight is between 10 and 35 lbs (4.5-16 kg). Common snapping turtles can be found in slow-moving bodies of fresh water such as ponds and creeks. They vary in color but are generally shades of tan or brown. They have long necks and tails with spiky protrusions called osteoderms. These osteoderms can be thought of as a sort of protective armor, as they are made of hard bone that sits below the skin’s surface.
It is also important to note that osteoderms are not the same as scales. A hard shell, or carapace, protects the common snapping turtle’s body. This carapace is covered in ridges, however this feature is less obvious in older turtles as the ridges tend to smooth out somewhat over time.
These turtles are omnivores, meaning they eat both plants and animals, but they largely hunt prey. They are considered nomadic hunters and will chase after and eat anything they can swallow, including fish, frogs, invertebrates, snakes, birds, small mammals, and even other turtles. They are more aggressive and faster than their alligator snapping turtle cousins.
As eggs and as young hatchlings, snapping turtles are vulnerable to a wide variety of predators. Once they reach adulthood, they have few natural predators. Humans are the greatest risk to adult turtles. As such, they have very long life spans, with data suggesting a maximum age of over one hundred years. Common snapping turtles are abundant in the wild.
The Alligator Snapping Turtle
The alligator snapping turtle, or Macrochelys temminckii, is the largest and heaviest freshwater turtle in North America, ranging in size from 13 to 32 inches and weighing between 19 to 176 lbs. This excludes exceptionally large turtles who may reside in controlled environments such as zoos. They are distinguished from the common snapping turtle by their shells, which possess three rows of raised plates and spikes. They are also slightly different in color, with grey or green skin, and usually covered in algae.
These turtles are almost exclusively carnivores and can be considered opportunistic hunters or ambush predators. They lie on the bottom of slow-moving creeks and rivers with their mouths open and wait for their prey to approach them versus chasing after it. Alligator snapping turtles have a worm-like appendage on their tongues that primarily functions as a fishing lure. The majority of their diet consists of fish, mollusks, amphibians, and carrion that they find. They are known to eat other turtles, small reptiles, and small mammals that may venture close to the water’s edge.
It is unusual, but they have even been found to eat small American alligators on occasion. They are often more active hunters at night and will spend most of the daylight hours sitting entirely still. The inside of their mouths is mottled or speckled in appearance and offers camouflage on the creek and riverbeds where they lurk.
Due to hunting for meat and collection for the exotic pet trade, alligator snapping turtles are considered endangered in several states and are protected under state law.
Snapping Turtles in Captivity
Common snapping turtles do not generally make good pets. Their necks are very long and flexible, and they can easily reach out and bite humans attempting to handle them. They also have very sharp claws used for digging, and these claws can’t be trimmed or cut. If you absolutely must handle a snapping turtle, they should never be picked up by their tail under any circumstances. This can seriously injure the turtle by causing damage to both the tail itself and to their vertebrae. You should also never attempt to move a turtle by dragging it, as this can scrape and scratch its legs, which can lead to infection.
Picking up a snapping turtle by its shell is a relatively safe way to move it, but take special care to keep your hands as far away from the head as you can. Above the hind legs is a gap in the carapace that is easy to grip and is far enough from the head that the turtle will not be able to reach. However, to really be safe, you can use a blanket, drop cloth, or tarp and pick it up by the corners with the turtle in the center.
Alligator snapping turtles are occasionally captive-bred as pets and are easy to find in the exotic animal trade. They are less flexible than the common snapping turtle, which makes handling them a bit easier, but due to their size, it is still a daunting task. Smaller, juvenile turtles can be held by the sides of their shell, but full-grown adults should only be picked up by holding the shell behind the head and above the tail.
Alligator snapping turtles prefer to catch fish by using their tongue technique described earlier. They’ll also eat other types of meat like chicken, beef, or pork if offered. Hand-feeding these turtles is exceptionally dangerous. Because of their size and needs, they should really only be kept by those who are experienced in reptile care.
Are snapping turtles dangerous? While the short answer to this question is yes, for the most part, they are not aggressive towards humans unless provoked. It has long been rumored that a common snapping turtle can bite off human fingers or toes, but there are no reported cases of this happening. Alligator snapping turtles, however, have indeed been known to bite off fingers, and there are at least three reported cases of this. The pressure of a snapping turtle bite can be well over 1000 PSI, which is equivalent to that of a Bengal Tiger.
Like all wild animals, it is best to keep your distance and leave them alone in their natural habitat. While the consequences of dealing with a snapping turtle may not be deadly, a bite from either kind of snapping turtle would require medical attention. In the case of alligator snapping turtles, it could result in very serious injury.