Snapping Turtles! Aka Family Chelydridae

He’s comin’ for ya! Actually, probably a she, and it’s nesting time.

Oooooo…snapping turtles. People get so excited about snapping turtles. “They bite off your toe!” “They hiss!” Which is a bit silly. They’re still turtles, and water turtles at that. Land makes snapping turtles a bit nervous, and being on edge makes most everyone a bit curt.

There are two species of snapping turtle in North America, the common snapping turtle, Chelydra serpentina which is found in the Piedmont and the alligator snapping turtle, Macrochelys temminckii, which is not found in the Piedmont but is a real brute. It’s the alligator that does the toe removal; common snappers just aren’t big enough. Biggest common snapper one found was less than 80 pounds; alligator snapping turtles have been found near 250 lbs.

Isn’t she cute?

The species name, serpentina, (snake-like) refers to their rather long and whippy necks. They’re able to reach quite further than you’d expect. Since their beaks can give such a nasty bite, you want to keep any body part you care for away from the head. Tail looks pretty snaky too, if you ignore the ridges. Ridges also run along the legs and the carapace, but the carapace ones get worn down and become less prominent with age.

So. Lifestyle. Snappers live in ponds (and pond-like water bodies). They don’t leave the water unless they have to, not even to bask. They’re mostly seen floating on the tops of ponds with their noses barely poking out. The resulting algae growths render them green and furry. Like most turtles they’ll eat anything.

Females can store sperm and lay whenever they get a hankering to. A fair number of reptiles do this; it’s handy to separate the excitement of sex and the production of offspring. You can find them nesting anytime from late spring to early fall. Females dig nest holes in sandy, sunny, preferably south facing areas, and the eggs hatch based on the weather, instead of a particular date. Cooler summers mean they stay in the egg longer. The neonates may spend their first winter in the nest site underground.

After they’re solid (most baby turtles are soft and squishy for a year or so) and of a reasonable size, not much bothers them. They’ll get accused of eating ducklings and goslings and other game birds, which they do, but not particularly often. They’ll also eat things that prey on ducklings and goslings and other game birds, and when really tiny can provide snacks to some of the game birds, so the numbers are probably a wash.

They’re also surprisingly cold tolerant, especially in the northern regions of their range. Its not unusual to find them walking about on the lake bed underneath the ice. When things are too hard up-top to poke out nostrils, they can flush water against the linings of their throat and mouth, getting enough oxygen to survive. If that doesn’t work, they can also entirely change their metabolic pathways, allowing them to survive without oxygen, although it does result in acid buildup within their tissues. Better to just breathe. Handy trick though.

Common snappers are still pretty common. Let’s keep it that way.

Like most turtles, we’re not entirely clear how old they get, but it’s at least over 100. They’ll continue to grow a bit throughout their lives, so the bigger the turtle, the older the turtle.

How to Move a Snapping Turtle

Do not grab the tail. Grab the saw tooth section of the carapace.


If you have to move a snapper, do not “have them bite a stick and drag them”, which will damage their legs and tummies (beak will be fine though), and do not pick them up by the tail, which can dislocate the tail end of their spines. Suggestions on less turtle damaging movement techniques including picking them up with a shovel, doing the stick biting thing long enough to get them onto a tarp that multiple people then grab ends of, and a tricky maneuver where you grab the tail end of the carapace behind the back legs.

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