Common Snapping Turtle


common snapping turtleThe common snapping turtle (Cheldrya serpentina) brings a pre-historic look to Oklahoma wildlife. The turtle is easily recognizable with its hefty size, long saw-tooth tail, and large head. If you recognize one while on land, though, take caution. They can live up to their name and notorious reputation by lunging forward and snapping their large, powerful jaws. When found in the water, however, they remain quite docile and will usually shy away from danger.

The common snapping turtle can be found throughout the eastern two-thirds of the United States, extending from the Atlantic Coast to the Rocky Mountains, and from Canada to the Gulf of Mexico. It prefers shallow bodies of water with plenty of vegetation, and rarely leaves the water except to bask. During the summer, however, some turtles can be found traveling long distances on land, apparently moving after their water source has dried up.
Adult snappers average between eight to 14 inches long and weigh 10 to 35 pounds. The carapace, or the top of the shell, is often brown, olive or tan, and has three raised ridges that become more obscured with age. The plastron, or underside of the turtle, is unusually small, has a yellow or cream color, and may have dark markings.

The turtle’s skin color can vary from brown to gray or tan. Its powerful legs are heavily scaled, and it has webbed feet with long claws. It has a large head with two barbels on the chin.

Males are usually sexually mature by age five, and females typically take two years longer. Courtship and mating generally take place between April and June. Courtship involves the female and male facing each other with their noses almost touching, then slowly swinging their necks and heads from side to side many times.

Females select an open site of sand, loam, or decaying vegetation, or sometimes a muskrat or beaver lodge to lay their eggs. Females have been found traveling long distances to find a nesting location, but sometimes use the same site from previous years. The nest is dug three to seven inches deep, with a narrow entrance leading to a bowl-shaped chamber below. Twenty to 40 eggs are typically deposited, with larger females laying more eggs than smaller females. The eggs hatch after an incubation period of roughly 100 days (though it can range from 55-125 days depending on temperature and humidity). Hatchlings are about one inch long, and are born with a small yolk sac attached to the center of their plastron, which they absorb over several days.

The most vulnerable time for a snapping turtle is while it is a hatchling. They can fall prey to hawks, herons, crows, large fish, alligators, raccoons, snakes, and larger turtles. Hatchlings spend most of their time in the water, hiding in vegetation.

Snapping turtles, which can live at least 30 years in the wild, are generally nocturnal. During the day, they bury themselves into the bottom mud or sand, and wait for prey to swim by. Young turtles feed mainly on small invertebrates such as insects, leeches, worms and aquatic plants. Adult snappers eat aquatic plants, fish, insects, crayfish, amphibians, and occasionally small mammals and ducklings.

With their intriguing appearance and secretive nature, the common snapping turtle proves to be a fascinating aspect of Oklahoma wildlife.