Sometimesit’s hard to choose a topic to write about and other timestopics just come calling. My husband came home from a bicycle ride the other day carrying a tiny snapping turtle that he found on the road, quite dehydrated. He put him in a bucket with a little water and the poor fellow didn’t move, but ten minutes later he was quite lively and active. We took him across the street to the lake and released him on some mud under some weeds close to the water’s edge. Good luck, little guy! We hope you survive.
Indiana has two native snapping turtle species, the common snapping turtle chelydra serpentina and the alligator snapper macrochelys temminckii. The alligator snapping turtle is extremely rare in Indiana having been seen most recently only in 1991 and again in 2012, both times in southern Indiana. The average weight for an alligator snapper is 155-175 pounds, but some have been recorded as large as 250 pounds! The common snapper on the other hand is not at all rare. In fact, they can be legally caught in Indiana with a daily bag limit of 25, and a possession limit of 50. However, you have to possess either a valid fishing or hunting license to catch one. Only three of the 18 turtle species in our state can be hunted; the rest are protected.
Remember the terms warm-blooded and cold-blooded? That’s how I learned them in science lessons “back in the day.” Now the preferred terms are “ectothermic” and “endothermic” which means the heat comes from outside (ecto-) or within (endo-). Snapping turtles are ectotherms. They have a shell with ridges (the ridges are more noticeable on younger turtles), sharp claws, and a long ridged tail. They are noted for their belligerent disposition, and can easily take a man’s finger off with their vice-like jaws. The serpentina in the Latin name comes from its “snake-like” head and neck which are highly mobile. Thus picking up a snapper is not advisable. The top shell, called the carapace, is between 8 to 18.5 inches long. The plastron or bottom shell is much smaller, and snappers can’t pull in their heads and legs for protection like box turtles can. Their inability to protect themselves in that way explains why they have developed such an aggressive attitude.
Snappers inhabit almost any kind of wetland. They feed on fish, frogs, insects, snails, birds, small mammals, and waterfowl, carrion, and aquatic vegetation--true omnivores. They are most active at night, although they can sometimes be seen basking in the sun. However, they dehydrate easily and they don’t tolerate high temperatures well, so they don’t bask as frequently or as long as other turtle species. They hibernate between October and March, although occasionally they can be seen moving around under ice on lakes. Twenty to 30 eggs are deposited in sandy soil on land and hatch in 9 to 18 weeks, depending on the weather. Hatchlings emerge in late August through early October. Snappers are safe from most predators except as eggs or hatchlings. At those stages of life they are susceptible to herons, raccoons, skunks, foxes, bass, bullfrogs, crows, and northern water snakes. And of course, the biggest predator of all—us!—can be a threat at any time.
One source I read said to only ever hold them by their tail to avoid being bitten, but another source said that holding them that way could injure the tail or the vertebral column. Some people who are trying to help a snapper get out of the road hold a stick in front of them and when the turtle grabs it with his powerful jaws, they drag the turtle to safety. But because the bottom shell is quite small, this can scrape their legs and underside, and wounds of this type can become infected. Apparently there is no fool-proof safe way to handle a snapper for his own benefit. So in the future, we’ll stick to rescuing hatchlings and let the adults fend for themselves.