Common Snapping Turtle
Chelydra serpentina serpentina (Linnaeus)
The Snapping Turtle is our biggest freshwater turtle, can be more then 50 cm shell length. Recognize it by its size, its muscular limbs and long tail or by the sawtooth back edge of its carapace. Colour usually looks greenish-gray or dark green because of algae growing on the carapace. Underneath, the plastron is much smaller than the carapace, so this turtle cannot protect itself by drawing into its shell. It looks like a size 10 turtle in a size 6 shell! This, plus its slowness on dry land, explains the snapper's aggressive behaviour when threatened - it cannot run or hide, so its only defense is attack. If molested, it will lunge forward with a neck that can reach halfway back to its tail, and cause a painful bite. In water, snappers are shy of humans and will swim away quietly. They only come out on land in late June and early July to dig a nest and lay eggs. Leave them alone.
Snappers frequent shallow lakes and streams with lots of plants. They eat fish, amphibians, and some bigger and smaller creatures located with their especially keen sense of smell. Unlike Painted Turtles, they are rarely seen out of the water basking in the sun. They hibernate underwater in winter. In Nova Scotia, snappers are most common in the southwest; there are only 3 reports from Cape Breton, believed to be released captive turtles. If you find a snapper in Cape Breton, please let the Museum know.
Additional Facts and Details
The Snapping Turtle is a complex of two subspecies: the Common Snapping Turtle, Chelydra serpentina serpentina, widespread in eastern North America; and the Florida Snapping Turtle, C. s. osceola, native to Florida and southern Georgia.
The Common Snapping Turtle ranges from mainland Nova Scotia and New Brunswick to southern Saskatchewan, most of the eastern and central United States, as far south as the Gulf of Mexico and as far west as the Rocky Mountains.
In Nova Scotia, it is common in the southwestern mainland and less common northeast of Halifax County.
Size: usually from 22 to 35 cm carapace length.
Early in the morning or evening, when the water is calm, it rises from the bottom and can be seen with its head extended above the surface, as though studying the surrounding landscape.
In the last two weeks of June and first week of July, before daylight or late in the afternoon, females dig nests and lay eggs in sand or gravel a few metres above the waterline, or in soil on a woods road 100 metres or more from water. Gravel roadbanks, tilled soil in gardens and sawdust piles at mills have also been used as nest sites.
Based on 8 nests, there are 19 to 41 spherical eggs laid each year.
Eggs hatch between late September and the end of October. Hatchlings may overwinter in the nest if the ground above is colder than the nest.
Snapping Turtles eat aquatic invertebrates, fish, amphibians, and to a lesser extent reptiles, birds and small mammals. Prey is devoured under the surface.
They have a keen sense of smell but limited vision.
Snapping Turtles are shy of humans and prefer to move away when approached. They are not a threat to people swimming. Deliberately taking one from the water or disturbing a nesting female is foolish. If threatened, the turtle will threaten you by lifting its posterior, lunging forward and attempting to bite with its sharp jaws and gaping mouth.
The neck is surprisingly long. This turtle can reach back to about halfway along the carapace to bite, so it is unwise (!) to hold one by the shell. If one must be handled, approach it from behind and pick it up by the base of the tail, hold at arms length with the plastron facing you.
Here is a note, probably about Snapping Turtles and Painted Turtles, from Nicolas Denys, a French immigrant to Nova Scotia in the 1600s: "In the same ponds is taken the Tortoise. Some of them are found as large around as the circumference of a hat. The shell above is streaked with red, white and blue colours. It is a very good fish. Being boiled, the shell is removed; then it is skinned. It is cut into pieces and served as a stew or a fricassee with a white sauce. There are no pullets which are as good as this".