The Common Snapping Turtle
Updated: Dec 5, 2019
Have you seen a big rock-like creature lumbering across the road in the last couple months? Congratulations! You’re a lucky eyewitness to the reproductive habits of Minnesota’s largest shelled reptile, the Common Snapping Turtle.
Jokes abound about “turtle soup”, but the truth is wild turtles were historically over-hunted by early settlers and frontiersmen because they made such an easy-to-catch and hearty meal, not to mention turtle shells were a trade good with Native Americans who used the shells for jewelry and medicine, as well as symbolic musical instruments and spiritual items.[5,7] Common snapping turtles were listed as a Species of Special Concern in 1984 due to concerns about over-hunting. Other reasons for population decline of all turtle species include habitat alteration and natural predation by raccoon, snake, coyote, and other animals. Thankfully, as a result of conservation efforts, common snapping turtles were removed from the Minnesota list of Endangered, Threatened, and Special Concern Species in 2013 and they currently hold no special federal listing.
Today, hunting turtles is off-limits unless you have purchased a special license from Minnesota DNR. Of the nine species that live in Minnesota, two—Blanding’s Turtle and the Wood Turtle—are categorized as Threatened Species and therefore a big no-no for anyone to disturb, license or not. Both these turtles are more land-prone and look like those big-shelled, captive-bred box turtles you might see in a pet store. Their friendly appearance makes them appealing for capture as pets, which accounts for some of the decline in these wild turtles’ populations.
What nobody seems to want as a pet, though, is a snapping turtle.
We’re well into July and that means hunters are now in the clear to “take” snapping turtles. If happened to have seen these reptiles on the move along roadways, fields, and other open areas in May and June, I hope you stood clear and let the turtle do her thing! What you probably saw was a female snapper trekking across a mile or more of dry land in search of the perfect place to dig a nest and lay her clutch of 25-50 eggs.1 After laying, straight back to the water she went. (Why a “she”? Males snappers simply have no reason to leave the water so are rarely spotted on dry land.)
Turtles aren’t only slow to move: They’re also slow to grow. It takes between one and two decades for snapping turtles to reach reproductive maturity, which is one reason why the DNR requires a minimum shell length of 12-inches for any taken snappers. At this size, snappers are well into adulthood at approximately 15-25 years old. The DNR also imposes a possession limit of 3 turtles per person. But, with a carapace (upper shell) length of 14 inches and weight near 45 pounds at full maturity (average catch is 20 pounds), three turtles are more than enough meat to go around.
Even as Minnesota’s largest, our common snapping turtle is still dwarfed by its southerly relative, the Alligator Snapping Turtle, which only travels as far northward as upper Missouri. The alligator snapper can grow to three times the size and weight of the common snapper, topping out around 175 pounds with a 30-inch carapace and a maximum age around 120 years (common snappers in captivity have been recorded to have only up to a 47-year lifespan). The alligator snapper’s appearance is also more aggressive: It’s carapace is bumpier, it’s coloration darker, and it’s jaws broader and more muscular.
If you spot a female common snapper in the road and wish to help her out, here are a few ways you can offer her a hand without, er, offering her your hand.*
1. Direct traffic. If it’s safe for you to do so, alert other drivers and passersby to slow down and drive around the turtle until she has safely crossed the road.
2. Scoop up the turtle and move her FORWARD on her journey. Use a snow shovel to carry her, or find a durable wooden stick or rod at least two feet long and allow her to “snap” onto it so you can lift or drag her across the road.
3. If you’re more daring, grab the back of the shell and lift. A video of a North Carolina zookeeper illustrating this hands-on move can be viewed on YouTube.
Some warnings: First, just as you ought to never hold up a rabbit by its ears, NEVER hold a turtle up by its tail! A turtle’s tail, like your own coccyx (tailbone), is an extension of the spine. A turtle can be permanently injured if yanked, pulled, or dangled by its tail. Second, wash your hands with soap and water after handling a turtle, as they are carriers of salmonella bacteria.
Remember: You’re helping the turtle, not redirecting her, so move the turtle in the direction she was already going and never, EVER relocate her to a different area that you deem “safer”. You’ll be removing her from her territory and she’ll lose her way back home.
But what of those eggs she laid? Let them be. One-inch-long hatchlings will surface from their warm, sandy nests between August and October, looking very much like miniatures of their adult counterparts. They’ll skitter away toward a nearby body of water where, hopefully, they’ll live happy lives for the next decade or so until it’s time for them to mate and start the local wild process anew.
*It’s merely folklore that a common snapping turtle can bite off your entire hand, although its powerful jaws can do considerable damage. However, alligator snappers have been known to cleanly remove a man’s finger! So, wilderness traveler, beware!
1 “Common Snapping Turtle”. Minnesota Zoo, 2019. URL: http://mnzoo.org/common-snapping-turtle/. Accessed: 03July2019.
2 Gilbert, Jim. “Beware: Turtles Are Moving, Nesting in June in Minnesota”, Star Tribune, 01June2018. URL: http://www.startribune.com/beware-turtles-are-moving-nesting-in-june-in-minnesota/484191941/?refresh=true. Accessed: 03July2019.
3 Turtle poster, Minnesota Department of Natural Resources. URL: https://files.dnr.state.mn.us/eco/nongame/turtle_poster.pdf. Accessed: 03July2019.
4 “NC Zoo Keeper Shows How To Move A Snapping Turtle”, North Carolina Zoo, 28July2017. URL: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=5xySxUjKz9w.
5 “North American Indigenous Peoples Used Turtle Shells as Symbolic Musical Instruments”. Sci-News.com, 11Sept2018. URL: http://www.sci-news.com/archaeology/turtle-shell-rattles-06396.html. Accessed: 03July2019.
6 Recreational Turtle License, MN DNR. URL: https://www.dnr.state.mn.us/fishing/commercial/turtles.html. Accessed: 03July2019.
7 Boyle, Robert W. “Trade in The Old West”, Old West Daily Reader, 2019. URL: https://oldwestdailyreader.com/trade-in-the-old-west/. Accessed: 03July2019.