Physically, they haven’t changed much in 215 million years, but their world sure has — as far as we know ancient turtles didn’t have to dodge motor vehicles.
The modern snapping turtle has “only” been around for about 40 million years. From late May until early July when female snappers are out looking for places to dig a hole in which to deposit their leathery “Ping-Pong ball” eggs, you may see them egg-laying on sandy road shoulders or crossing the pavement. Sadly many such females, ranging in size from about eight pounds up to thirty or more, are killed by traffic.
Even more tragic is the fact that some motorists intentionally hit snapping turtles, which are unfairly blamed for killing off game fish and young waterfowl. Snappers are omnivores and feed on everything from aquatic vegetation to crayfish to carrion. During the height of summer the majority of their diet is plant-based. Despite decades of research from the 1950s to the present day that exonerates snapping turtles of all game-species murder charges, they are still seen as a threat to wildlife by those who fish and hunt. It’s not to say turtles won’t eat a trout or gosling, but in natural habitats they have no measurable impact on game species. Private ponds and other non-natural habitats are exceptions and can sometimes require turtle management.
A turtle’s shell, composed of a carapace (top) and a plastron (bottom) is an extension its vertebrae, and is essentially living bone that’s covered in tissue similar in composition to our fingernails. Unfortunately the shell is not as strong as it looks, and even if a turtle appears unscathed after being hit by a car, chances are it has numerous broken bones and internal injuries.
You can help a turtle cross the road as long as you follow a few rules. First, be safe. Don’t stop if you’ll be in danger of getting hit or of causing a traffic accident. You don’t want to get other drivers killed, even if it is a turtle-hitter. Second, listen to the turtle. If she wants to get across the road, it doesn’t matter if you think conditions on the other side don’t look conducive to egg-laying. If you turn her back she’s just going to cross again.
“The safest way to handle a snapping turtle is to ask someone else to do it.”
The safest way to handle a snapping turtle is to ask someone else to do it. In the water they feel safe and are generally docile. Bites are extremely rare in water. On land, however, it is a different story. Because snappers can’t pull themselves inside their shells as completely as other turtles, they’ve developed “attitude” to compensate. Their unusually long necks can reach around nearly to their back legs to snap with their toothless — but sharp — beaks.
Picking up turtles by the tail may seem like a safe method, but this can damage their spines. The recommended “turtle hold” is to grasp the carapace on either side near the back end. Remember the part about them reaching back past the middle of their shells to bite? I carry a scoop shovel in the trunk for turtle-herding.
Because road-killed snapping turtles are nearly always fertile females, road mortality is a real threat to their species. Snappers become mature by size rather than age, and begin breeding when their shells measure about eight inches across. A large female can weigh 25-35 pounds and have a shell of 15”- 20” in diameter.
Turtle shells are segmented like a mosaic. Each section, known as a scute, has growth rings that correspond to age, similar to the annual rings of a tree. These rings are how we know snappers in the wild can live at least 70 years, and quite possibly longer, though the average age is closer to thirty.
Slowing down near wetlands during breeding season can help reduce turtle mortality. You’re most likely to see snapping turtles during June from dawn to midday, and again in the evening. Also, let’s help restore their reputation by spreading the word that they are not a danger to fish and waterfowl. We need to respect our elders, especially those that have been around longer than the dinosaurs.
Paul Hetzler is a horticulture and natural resources educator with Cornell Cooperative Extension of St. Lawrence County.