Snapping turtles are common and widespread from southern Canada to Ecuador, and across most of the United States. They inhabit inland and coastal waters of many types, but seem to prefer slow-moving bodies of water with soft mud bottoms and plenty of submerged and emergent plants. To see them at the Maryland Zoo, head over to the Maryland Wilderness.
Common snapping turtles are one of the largest species of freshwater and salt-marsh turtle in North America. They are active year-round in the southern parts of their range, and overwinter in the northern parts of their range by burying themselves in mud at the bottom of a pond or lake. They tolerate cold water well, though, and remain inactive for only a short period of time.
Snapping turtles spend most of their time in water rather than on land. Defensively and otherwise, they are well designed for life on the bottom. They have large carapaces (top shells) that protect them from attack from above. They have small plastrons (bottom shells), but few predators can or would attack them from below.
Like other turtles and all other reptiles, snapping turtles need to bask in the sun in order to warm themselves and maintain an optimal internal body temperature. However, snapping turtles rarely come out of the water to bask. You might see one on a log from time to time, but you are more likely to see one floating at the water’s surface with most of its carapace and snout showing.
Snapping turtles are most active at dawn and dusk, and this is when they do most of their feeding. They are opportunistic omnivores that eat just about anything that presents itself, including fish, frogs, tadpoles, salamanders, insects, aquatic plants, snails, leeches, worms, snakes, bird eggs and nestlings, small mammals, and carrion. They grab their food with a quick snapping motion.
The snapping turtle’s ferocious reputation matches its ferocious appearance but is only somewhat deserved. In the water, snapping turtles will quickly swim away from any human disturbance. On land, they are more vulnerable and therefore more defensive. They will react to any threat aggressively.
Be well aware that snapping turtles are dangerous to handle. They can strike quickly forwards, sideways, or backwards (with their heads upside down), and their necks can stretch 2/3 the length of their carapaces!
Snapping turtles breed during the spring and early summer months. During breeding season, males may battle each other, and their scuffles can last upwards of an hour. Males fight each other somewhat like sumo wrestlers, banging up against each other with bodies upright, grabbing hold of each other in a tight grip with their plastrons pressed together, and rolling over and over in the water. There can be quite a lot of biting, kicking, and scratching, but rarely do the battles end in serious injury or death.
After mating, females will leave their aquatic homes and come onto land to search for suitable nesting sites. They may locate their nests near the shoreline of a pond or lake, or further away from water, in an open field, gravel bank, railroad bed, or sand dune. A female will dig a nest, deposit her eggs (which are perfectly round and about the size of a Ping-Pong ball), and cover them by scooping sand or dirt into the nest. Immediately after depositing her eggs, she will head back to the pond or water source from which she came.
Many, if not most, nests are ransacked by predators. Those eggs that survive will hatch in late summer, and the temperature at which they were incubated determines the sex of the hatchlings. Baby snapping turtles are about one inch long at hatching, with tails about the same length. Depending on the group, the babies will either emerge within a few days and head straight for water or remain in their nest through the winter. Once hatchlings reach water, they stay in the shallows clinging to underwater vegetation until they become stronger swimmers.
Snapping turtle eggs and babies are extremely vulnerable to predation. Skunks, foxes, raccoons, and mink frequently raid nests and eat eggs. Hatchlings are also eaten by a variety of predators, including herons, hawks, alligators, large fish, raccoons, snakes, and larger turtles.
Adult snapping turtles have fewer predators, but these include alligators, otters, coyotes, bears, and most significantly man.
A threatened snapping turtle will turn to face its attacker head-on. It will hiss and, if unable to escape, deliver a very strong bite.
Snapping turtles are common and widespread throughout their range.