Sunday, August 21, 2011

Common Snapping Turtle

One of the most misunderstood creatures to swim in our waters is the prehistoric-looking snapping turtle. They are vilified as fish killers and stalked by pond owners throughout North America. Never was there a creature more undeserving of it's reputation than this one. The truth of the matter is...."A pond is healthier with the presence of snapping turtles, than one without them" Snapping turtles eat the weakened, injured and sick fish. This habit of feeding on the slower fish helps to cull out the weaker genes and the sick fish, thus reducing the risk of disease or illness being spread to healthy vital fish. Your fish population will therefore be healthier. These turtles are simply not fast enough or agile enough to capture active healthy fish. These turtles are often killed by fishermen because of their opportunistic nature. If you have fish on a stringer, these turtles will feed on them. They simply see the struggling fish as a weakened or injured fish. This is an opportunity that no self-respecting snapper will turn down. Rather than killing and cussing the turtle for doing what it is programmed to do, why not just put your fish in a basket.....problem solved! Many people don't realize that a vast majority of the diet of these turtles consists of vegetation. In fact up to 40% of their diet will be aquatic plants. In many cases it is much higher than this. So the villainous reputation that the snapper has of being a greedy fish killing machine is grossly exaggerated and false.

Each spring and summer the turtles leave their watery homes seeking mates and looking for places to lay eggs. It is at this time we will see turtles on the highway or other roadways. While people will usually try to avoid hitting turtles they view as cute like painted turtles or box turtles, they take the opposite position when it comes to snapping turtles. I see many snappers hit on the road and it sickens me to know that these are avoidable and senseless deaths perpetrated by people with little to no knowledge of the creature they just destroyed.

The turtle pictured here was hit on the highway near the 102 River. When I first spotted it I thought it was alive, so I stopped to move it off the road before someone did hit it. Upon closer inspection the turtle had indeed already been hit and was bleeding profusely. I had nothing with me to kill it and put it out of its misery so I gently placed it off the side of the road in the shade. It was so sad to see this very old, once vital turtle being reduced to roadkill in the blink of an eye. I would never advocate swerving your car to avoid hitting any animal, human life is precious and it certainly isn't worth the risk of killing ones self or your passengers to avoid hitting an animal. That being said, 9 out of 10 times you can safely drive around a turtle or straddle your car over the top of it. Remember these are slow moving creatures. 

On top of the many snapping turtles being sacrificed to cars each year I just learned of a practice that takes place in Indiana each year, called SNAPPERFEST. This sickening event promotes the torture of snapping turtles in the name of sport and fun. Turtles are captured and slammed on the ground repeatedly while people try  to pull the neck of the turtle out of its shell until they can wrap their fist around the turtles very long neck. These turtles are often left in the heat to dehydrate and die. Turtles are thrown to the dogs to play with and to be further tortured. 

Don't get me wrong here, I am all for hunting in a responsible manner. Ethical hunters do not feel the need to torture or to be cruel to the game they are after. Any animal that is killed should be done so quickly and humanely with the ideology that the meat will be consumed. Killing to be killing is not hunting that is blood sport perpetrated by individuals of questionable moral standards. Anyone who can enjoy watching an animal being tortured and left to die is without compassion for living creatures and lacks understanding and knowledge of the ways of the natural world. Each creature serves a purpose, even if we don't fully know what that purpose is.

This event is held annually in Ohio County, Indiana at a place called Campshore Campground. This is a family campground where people spend their vacations. Children are running around playing, swimming, fishing and riding their bikes and being exposed to animal cruelty. Is it no wonder we as a society question the moral integrity of our youth? How could it be beneficial to expose impressionable children to something so heinous as this? What are we teaching our youth? That we have dominion over all living creatures? That we decide who or what has the right to live or die? That being cruel in the name of fun is ok? Then we punish these same children for torturing the neighbors cat. Seriously people, wake up! If we want to raise gentler more understanding youth, they first have to see us behave in such a manner.

I normally do not like to get political and I try  not to make waves, but occasionally I come across things that demand that I speak out against them. This is one of those times. I apologize if I have offended anyone with my rant, but I do not apologize for my stance against something as senseless as this event.

Common Snapping Turtles (Chelydra serpentina serpentina) reach weights up to 35 or 40 pounds and lengths up to 14 or 15 inches.  They have a big pointy head and sharp beak-like mouth that has the potential to snap off a toe or finger. They have an amazingly long neck, therefore holding them by the sides of the shell like you would other water turtles is not advised. They can with little difficulty reach their neck around to the side of their shell and bite your hand. Their carapace (shell) can be brown, tan or almost black. Because of their aquatic nature and the fact that they swim along the bottom of ponds, rivers and lakes it is not uncommon to see them covered in mud or algae. Their plastron (underside bony plate) is usually yellowish in color. It can be difficult to tell males from females, males are almost always smaller than females. Each turtle has an opening at the rear called a cloacal, this opening is used for mating, eliminating waste and for egg laying. In males the opening will be further out from the plastron than the females will be.

Snapping turtles rarely bask in the sun like other aquatic turtles do. They prefer to stay in their watery habitats, They do however leave if the water dries up or to look for places to lay eggs. On land these turtles are out of their element and will readily defend themselves by opening their mouths, and lunging at whomever is daring to pester them. Once many years ago my son and I were taking a drive in the country and found a snapper on the gravel road. I stopped and my son said he would get it off the road. He reached down to grab it by the tail and it literally jumped two feet in the air and launched itself at him. My son jumped back and screamed like a little girl. After we both had a good laugh at the audacity of this turtle, we finally managed to move it off the road to safety.

These turtles survive our cold bitter winters by burrowing into the mud at the bottom of ponds, lakes and rivers. They become active again in March and remain so until November (weather permitting). Besides feeding on aquatic vegetation and weakened fish, they will also eat frogs, crawfish, insects, worms, snakes, birds and small mammals. Another erroneously belief held by many is that these turtles kill significant amounts of waterfowl young. This is simply not true, at least not in normal conditions. In artificial ponds where waterfowl and fish production are enhanced and the population of these turtles is too high then this species can become a nuisance. Those types of situations are certainly not the norm.

Our local herpetologist has been doing an ongoing study/survey of the aquatic turtle population on MWSU campus. There are nine ponds on the campus and he and his students set turtle traps out to capture turtles and record data. They are hoping to learn more about the traveling habits of these turtles as well as the overall health of the turtles and the ponds. Last year some vandals damaged one of the nets before he was able to check it and two turtles drowned. We were all sickened by it, but  the turtles were ultimately used to dissect and check for parasites and to determine the gut content. This was a rare opportunity for us to get a closer look at the diet of the campus turtles. We discovered they were parasite free (with exception to a few nematodes) and that their diet was close to 85% vegetation.

WARNING: The following pictures of the dissection may be disturbing to some viewers!

(The plastron exposed on snapping turtle)

(Plastron has been cut away to reveal inner organs)

(Removing the organs to check for parasites under the microscope)

(Internal organs exposed)

(View of the intestines, which contained mostly mosses and other aquatic vegetation. We did find a few fish scales and one fish eyeball. There were a few tiny fingernail clams that were probably consumed along with the vegetation)

I have often taken the stance....... that our most misunderstood creatures are also our most fascinating. Snapping turtles are certainly interesting, but they are also an integral part of any aquatic habitat and should be valued as such. By all means if you enjoy eating turtle meat keep eating it and following the hunting laws. However, please reconsider the next time you pick up a gun or a club to kill one of these living dinosaurs and instead take a moment to watch and admire their uniqueness. 


  1. Thanks MObugs, for addressing this issue. People need to be educated about the importance of turtles in our ecosystem. Your comments about compassion and understanding are right on.

  2. PS: I shared your post on Facebook. It's an important topic.

  3. You're welcome Anne, sometimes things just need to be brought to peoples attention. Many people may not know this is even happening and should be aware of it. The more people who know, the more likely it will be that it can be stopped. I think most people would be outraged at this spectacle. Thanks for sharing it on your FB wall. It is on mine as well. Let's hope this event is stopped before next year.

  4. I will be sharing this on FB and probably G+ as well. You're right on with this, MObugs!

  5. I found a huge one in my yard and put it in a cage made out of hog panel to show a few kids. It climbed over the top that night.I have been surprised finding them a great distance from a pond when they migrate.

  6. well i have seen one shot by the side of a pond & it had eggs in it plus i see a lot of smashed eastern box turtles in the road every single year and most that were smashed was on the side of the roads so they had to go out of their way to hit the turtles thats why when i see any turtle i get it and bring it home with me their does need to be a law and sorry but fuck the DNR they can make the people that hit the turtles pay i wont help it across the road I'll take it home and keep them i keep them because one day their wont be anymore turtles because people are killing them for the hell of it and destroying their land and trees you have anything to say to me fill free to email me back at

  7. I think we should all pay attention to the beauty of all living things.
    They are precious cretures and should respected and loved.
    I dont realy know how i got to this website... I was outside and i found two common ground beetles so i took them in to observe them, and i noteced one had tiny mites cralling all over it and i looked up common ground beetle parasites and got here!

  8. I just stopped on a country road in Greene County Missouri this afternoon to move a snapping turtle off the road. I always move turtles off the roadway when I encounter them. This snapping turtle was the first to best me. She (?) pivoted to face me as I approached and continued to turn as I tried to move around her. She raised up high on her legs and as I approached closer she opened her mouth wide. I took this as a "no, thank you" to my offer to move her off the road and got back into my car, driving carefully around her. Godspeed, Ms. Snapping Turtle!