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The Snapping Turtle: A Living Submarine

For some unknown reason, I have always been captivated by things that crawl, swim and slither. None of my siblings seem to have been smitten with my affection for such critters, and my interest has not waned over the years. It seems that my grandchildren, however, have inherited some of my curiosity with a number of reptiles and amphibians. Although many are probably most excited to see large pythons or toothy alligators, I tend to gravitate to those animals which occur naturally here in our area. The snapping turtle is one such animal. While many people may not have seen a snapper in the wild, they are much more abundant than you may have realized. If you spend much time fishing on our local lakes and ponds or even if you just hike the shores of a local lake, you have probably seen more snappers than you thought because many of those swirls at the surface are not made by fish but rather by snapping turtles. The nose and eyes, like a periscope on a submarine, are all that surfaces most of the time, and the least little disturbance or attempt to get close will send the hard-shelled amphibian scurrying for the soft mud bottom. Although I have been unable to find out how long they can hold their breath, it may be five minutes or more before they resurface.

Although they seldom leave the water, this is the time of year you are most likely to see one crossing a road or walking across dry land in search of a nesting site. While in the water, they are very difficult to approach, and they will quickly dive into the depths to avoid humans. On land, however, their demeanor changes dramatically. They are very slow on land, and unlike many other turtles, they are unable to withdraw into their shells for protection; thus they can become very aggressive in their actions. A very formidable mouth may open wide, accompanied by a hissing sound. They may also emit a foul odor. Their head may snap straight ahead or from side to side with amazing speed and with enormous power. Clearly, they are capable of doing some serious damage to a hand or finger. Unless you know what you are doing, it is best to leave them alone. On occasion, fishermen will catch them while fishing with worms or some other bait. If you get one anywhere near the boat, it is probably best to just cut the line. In case you are wondering, I have done my fair share of wadding chest-deep in lakes full of snappers, and I have never been bothered, but when a snapper is approached or bothered on land, it’s a different story.

They remain active all summer, but most tend to hibernate during the winter months. They usually bury themselves in mud, and their oxygen intake drops considerably. They may stay buried in the mud for three or more months, but some snappers have actually been observed swimming beneath the ice. The average adult weighs between 15 and 30 lbs, but many people who see them grabbing a snort of air at the surface tend to overestimate their size. They may live up to 30 to 40 years. Much like a high school wrestler following Friday night’s match, the snapper will eat almost anything, including vegetable matter, snakes, salamanders, fish, small mammals, young ducks, and even dead stuff. Although I have never tried to catch, kill, clean, and eat one, I am told that the variety of meats they provide makes an absolutely great-tasting turtle soup.