Home | Turtles & Tortoises | The Snapping Turtle, Chelydra serpentina – Miscellaneous Facts

The Snapping Turtle, Chelydra serpentina – Miscellaneous Facts

Last time I wrote about the natural history of this behemoth of freshwater turtles, and I plan to address its care in captivity (for those of you who are up to it!) shortly. There is so much of interest concerning this impressive beast, however, that I find myself compelled to write a bit more. Hopefully, the following notes that will show you what I mean:
Largest Snapper ever taken in NY State 80 lbs.
The snapping turtle is the Western Hemisphere’s second largest fresh water turtle (following the alligator snapping turtle). The largest to date weighed 86 pounds, but rumors of 100 pound plus individuals persist.

The scientific species name, “serpentina”, refers to the long, snake-like neck and explosive strike. They avoid people in water, but bite viciously when disturbed, especially if on land.

This species is trapped and bred on farms for its meat, which is served in restaurants both here and abroad.

Snapping turtles are, as far as we know, the most cold tolerant of all turtles – in tA 206 lb. Alligator Snapper and Iemperate areas they hibernate, but can sometimes be seen swimming below the ice on sunny days in winter. I have observed individuals basking in late January in NYC.

The alligator snapping turtle, Macroclemmys temmincki, a relative, is one of the world’s largest freshwater turtles, topping 200 pounds in weight. Native to the southeastern United States (occasionally ranging north to southern Illinois), its numbers are in sharp decline due to over-collection and habitat loss. An individual I cared for at the Bronx Zoo was 206 pounds at last weighing, and larger animals are known.

Onto captive care next time. Until then, thanks for your interest, Frank.

29 comments

  1. avatar

    i’ve h@d my @llig@Tor sn@pper @bout 2 mOnths nOW,its @bOut 7 mOnths Old,i jUst w@nt 2 knOw if tHeres @ny tips,or big dOn’ts wHen Owning @ @llig@tOr sn@pper..wH@ts tHe L/w of yOur tUrtle?

  2. avatar

    Hello, Frank Indiviglio here. Thanks for your interest in our blog.

    I think the biggest “don’t” would be “Don’t get bitten”! Alligator snappers sometimes stay still for hours at a time, but can strike quickly. It has nothing do with being “tame” – movement in front of the head can trigger an instinctive feeding response, even in long-term captives (I worked with the turtle in the photo for nearly 20 years, but always kept my hands out or reach). ..but, if you are careful, alligator snappers can provide you with a lifetime of interest, and may even breed if given enough room.

    As for their care, it’s very important to plan ahead…eventually the turtle will outgrow even the largest aquarium available, so you’ll need to arrange a pool or pond situation. Zoos are not usually able to take these turtles as donations, and they should not be released once they mature. Filtration, and a way to drain the enclosure so that you can do water changes, is another big consideration – a very powerful filter will be necessary.

    Dietary variety is very important – use goldfish as only a part of the diet, 20-30% or less. Minnows and shiners should be the basis of the diet, with other whole fresh water fishes added on occasion. If possible, it is a good idea to collect native fishes in the summer, or make a deal with friends who are anglers (or take up the sport yourself!) – sunfish, catfish, bass, perch and others are all fine. I usually remove the spiny fins, just for safety’s sake.

    Whole fishes are best, but for variety’s sake you can buy cleaned fresh water fishes in a food store (i.e. trout, Tilapia, catfish). Marine species (flounder, etc), prawn, crabs are ok on occasion, but should not be a major part of the diet.

    Crayfishes and snails are a big part of the natural diet, and should be provided when possible.

    Mice and rats are often used by pet keepers – although convenient, these should be used only for a small portion of the diet; wild alligator snappers will consume mammals when available, but large quantities of fur on a regular basis may cause digestive problems, especially for young turtles. As you can guess from the unique tongue lure, they are fish-specialists.

    That Pet Place carries a number of foods that will be useful until your turtle needs larger items. Experiment with several of the aquatic turtle pellets – these can form a majority of the diet at this point if accepted (you may need to feed them along with fish, to encourage the turtle to try). Frozen silversides, beef heart, sand eels and squid can be used for up to 30% of the diet…all should be readily accepted.

    The turtle in the photo weighs between 205-215 pounds. I’m not sure of his exact length, but with the tail he approaches 5 feet. He is at least 50 years of age, but could be a good deal older
    (he arrived as an adult, without much background information).

    Please keep me posted, you have a great deal of exciting observations to come!

    Best regards, Frank Indiviglio.

  3. avatar

    Frank,

    I work in a gravel pit in central NH. In early June I watched two snappers lay eggs near my scale. Have been observing the nest sites for over 18 weeks. No noticeble activity yet. July was much cooler and rainier than usual but August was warmer than average. Wondering if/when eggs will hatch? have checked some sites that say hatchlings may overwinter in nest. Can’t see how that would be possible unless they don’t hatch. Winter here will be cold and snowy. Feet of snow and below freezing for weeks if not months straight. Ice on lakes will be thick enough for vehicles to drive on. Amazing that these creatures survive!! Anyway, curious if eggs can survive w/o hatching. Thanks

  4. avatar

    Hello Roy, Frank Indiviglio here.

    Thanks for your interest in our blog and for passing along the interesting observation.

    The incubation period ranges from 60-90 days, varying somewhat with weather (here in southern NY, snappers hatch out in early-mid August). In NH and points north, they do indeed often overwinter in the nest.

    Amazingly, the eggs do hatch, usually in September, and the young survive despite being a mere 6-8 inches below the ground. Snappers, painted turtles, wood frogs and several other northerly reptiles and amphibians produce a glycerol based “anti-freeze” which surrounds each cell and prevents its contents from being damaged. I have found gray treefrogs hibernating beneath a thin layer of dead leaves – to all external appearances “frozen solid”. I re-located the animals and, sure enough, they emerged unscathed in late March.

    Scientists are studying this phenomenon for possible use in preserving human organs destined for transplant…reptile livers, hearts etc. follow the same basic plan as our own.

    Snappers are especially cold-tolerant, ranging further north than our other native turtles; adults are some times seen moving below the ice in frozen ponds.

    As long as you are able to check the eggs every day as spring arrives, you can construct a wire cage around the nest site if you’d like to see the hatchlings. One night confined will not do them any harm. There is a chance they will emerge from the nest this month, but in my experience they are more likely to do so in the spring.

    Good luck and please keep me posted…if you have the opportunity, please let me know if they do hatch this month. Thanks.

    Best regards, Frank Indiviglio.

  5. avatar
    Kathryn Terrana

    We recentlyn built a house on a site where there was once woods. While we were building, a turtle came up and laid eggs in a pile of sand we had there. The eggs were unfortunately eaten by something. This year we landscaped and the turtle tried to come back. The ground was too hard for her to dig so she left. She tried again after that. We piled up some sand hoping she will try again. Do you think she will? It’s June 11th.

  6. avatar

    Hello Kathryn, Frank Indiviglio here.

    Thanks for your interest in our blog and your efforts on behalf of the turtle. Turtles often return to the same site even if unsuccessful – how often she will try may depend on an internal clock, i.e. how much time is left in the nesting period and also the egg’s position within her body; in zoo situations, I’ve had turtles expel eggs into the water when proper nesting sites were not available. Please let me know where you are located, and the species of turtle you saw (or a description if you are unsure).

    A sand pile may work, but I suggest loosening the soil around it as well, in case nesting on a hill throws her off (turtles can be quite picky) – but I have had sand piles work on snapping turtles (NYC) that had lost their original nesting site (on zoo grounds, due to the zoo constructing a “nature walk”!!!! – but that’s another story!). Check the area each AM, and dampen the soil regularly to encourage use. Unfortunately, predators are usually in tune with the nesting schedule, and check regularly and may beat you to the eggs; Raccoons are especially adept at this – in Jamaica Bay, NY, the consumed 97% of all Diamondback Terrapin eggs until excluded. If you find eggs, you can try incubating at home and releasing the young – please write back for details. When removing eggs, use powder free latex gloves and place them into a container of sand – keep same orientation as in nest (don’t turn or spin the eggs). You can also build a predator excluder around the nest, but it takes a skilled builder to defeat raccoons, skunks, foxes, coatis and others.

    Good luck and please keep me posted.

    Best regards, Frank Indiviglio.

  7. avatar
    Kathryn Terrana

    Thanks for writing me back, Frank. I didn’t see the turtle, my husband did. We live in northeast PA on a lake. I believe it is a snapping turtle about the size of a garbage can lid. Maybe a little smaller. So far she has not come back. I was wondering about how to keep the eggs safe if she does come back. Thanks for that info. If she does not come back this year, do you think she will try again next year? I hope so. We will prepare her area in advance next year just in case. Again, thanks for all your input.
    Kathryn Terrana

  8. avatar

    Hello Kathryn, Frank Indiviglio here.

    My pleasure, Thanks for the feedback. That would be a Snapping Turtle…she may still try to nest this year, but less likely after another week or so. She will almost certainly return to the same site next year. Removing the eggs is the surest method of safeguarding them, and they are relatively easy to hatch at home temperatures, without an incubator. If you want to try to construct a barrier around the nest, I may be able to forward a drawing.

    In southern NYS, most snappers nest on the first rainy nite in June – that would be a good starting point for you next year; however, it may be a bit later as you are further north – they almost always try on rainy nights, however, or on nites following rains.

    Good luck and please keep me posted.

    Best regards, Frank Indiviglio.

  9. avatar

    Do you have any other pictures of the alligator snappper you could share? I have been fascinated since I had to stop my car for one crossing the road in Kentucky. He was taking up the opposite lane! It was like seeing a live dinosaur. Are alligator snappers recorded anywhere in the fossil record?

  10. avatar

    Hello Haley, Frank Indiviglio here.

    Thanks for your interest in our blog. I understand your fascination…they are quite amazing, and very rare, especially in Kentucky.

    I may have another photo; I’ll check and if so will attach to an email….of course, I hope you get to see him alive at the Bronx Zoo someday!

    There is some follies history…please check this article for a short note. The best reference would be Peter Prichard’s book, The Alligator Snapping Turtle (1989)…a must have for snapper fans.

    Good luck, enjoy and please keep me posted.

    Best regards, Frank Indiviglio.

  11. avatar

    Hi, Frank.

    Great blog. It’s nice that you make it a point to respond graciously to every query you receive.

    Do you know of Alligator Snappers preying upon Common Snapping Turtles–if so is it upon solely juvenile commons or actually adults as well. What the largest American Alligator that your aware of having fallen as prey (or killed regardless of consumption) to an alligator snapper–be it through being confined together in a trap or enclosure, or just having naturally encountered each other. Are there any anecdotes of larger mammals such as deer being attacked by alligator snappers? Lastly–and thank you for your humoring my litany of left-field queries–have you gotten any wind of even a single unprovoked attack on a human? I know something like an ally snapper stalking a swimmer to inflict a bite is probably unheard of, but are there indeed any accounts of say, a person wading in an inopportune spot and getting a foot mangled?

    Thanks so much for your time,
    Erik Howell

  12. avatar

    Hello Erik, Frank Indiviglio here.

    Thanks so much for the kind words and most interesting post – you inspired me to get out my copy of The Alligator Snapping Turtle, by Peter Prichard (1989), which I have neglected lately…thanks (the book is well worth searching for if you are interested in Alligator and Common Snappers, best source of info and many personal accounts from the “Turtle God” himself!).

    Natural predation is hard to observe, so most accounts come from stomach –content studies (rare) or captive accounts. The turtle pictured with me in this article defecated turtle scutes (slider, Eastern Painted likely) upon arrival at the Bronx Zoo; another under my care bite off the head of a 30 lb+ St. Hilliar’s Turtle (in my defense I’ll say that the decision to house them together was in bigger hands than mine!). Stomach content studies have shown that Loggerhead Musk turtles are commonly taken in some habitats, along with Mud turtles, Cooters and Sliders. So I’ve no doubt they take Common Snappers on occasion. As for size, one captive in LA killed and partially consumed a Common Snapper of appx 30 lbs.

    I don’t know of any records of predation on large vertebrates…I have one record of an intact beaver head being found in a (wild) turtle, and muskrats are regularly recorded as well.

    As an aside, a huge common snapper living wild in an outdoor pond at the Bronx Zoo once killed an adult mute swan, and a colleague of mine once removed a 10 pounder from the feet of a Canada Goose!

    Peter Pritchard’s book has a photo of a gentleman from Fla who lost part of 2 fingers to an Alligator Snapper, but he was handling the animal. I don’t know of any unprovoked attacks but the scenarios you lay out would not be out of the question, I think, if the turtles were not so shy (and rare). Over 40 years ago, I met a commercial Common Snapper fisherman who knew of a child that lost much of her heel to a Snapper when dangling her feet in the water (all is other info was very reliable); I’ve lured several Common Snappers close by wiggling fingers and toes (in the wild – captives will grab your head if hungry and its in reach!), including one monster that unfortunately escaped by grasp and subsequent efforts to find him. Common Snappers are far more aggressive, in terms of hunting, in my experience, but I think an Alligator Snapper might grab a body part under the right circumstances (someone is rumored, in Mr. Pritchard’s book, to have lost the organ that jumped to mind when you read “body part” to a Giant Softshell in SE Asia, but no documentation!).

    Good luck, enjoy and please keep me posted with any thoughts/observations you may have.

    Best regards, Frank Indiviglio.

  13. avatar

    Oh my, keeping one of these turtles, or the even more impressive Alligator Snapping Turtle would seem to require a very skilled keeper. Maybe keeping Snapping Turtles would be the equivalent of a lizard fancier wanting to keep Monitor lizards?

  14. avatar

    Hello Brett, Frank Indiviglio here.

    Nice to hear from you again.

    Good analogy; the water volume and filtration concerns are real drawbacks; the most successful home set-ups I’ve seen have been in outdoor swimming pools or large fenced in ponds equipped with powerful filters and a drain. One good point re outdoor housing – once they top 12” in length, there’s no need to worry about raccoon predation!

    Good luck and please keep me posted.

    Best regards, Frank Indiviglio.

  15. avatar

    (4-1-12)
    Hi Frank, today we saw a giant Chelydra Serpentina crawl out of a huge hole under a bush near the foundation of the house. We are very worried about what affects the turtle will make on the house. What do you think we should do to make the turtle stop ruining the foundation?

  16. avatar

    Hello Regina,

    Thanks for your interest. No need to worry; common snappers are entirely aquatic, and only leave the water to lay eggs or if dispersing from one pond to another (chased away by a larger male, etc.).

    Please let me know if you need any further information and please keep me posted.

    Best regards, Frank Indiviglio.

  17. avatar

    Thanks Frank. I’ll keep you updated.

  18. avatar

    Hello Regina,

    Thanks; the eggs may hatch anywhere from August-Sept, although in northern states they sometimes overwinter in nest and emerge in spring. The tiny hatchlings are jet-black, look like mini-dinosaurs. Keep an eye out for them…they’ll head straight for water, but sometimes become disoriented and wind up wandering fence lines, etc.

    Please let me know if you need any further information. Good luck, enjoy and please keep me posted.

    Best regards, Frank Indiviglio.

  19. avatar

    Thanks Frank.

  20. avatar

    4 weeks ago my i saw a truck run over one of these turtles . I brought it home and was told there was no way it was going to live not wanting to let it die I set it in my yard were it didnt move for days its shell was horably cracked i fet food out for the turtle but it never touched it .. I put what I thought to be a dead turtle down in the creek near my home . 2 weeks later to see that same turtle laying its eggs . snapping turtles are very harty .

    ps. Ty for the info about what to feed them !

  21. avatar

    Hi kaitlyn,

    What a great story, thanks! they really are amazing; over the years, I’ve seen some photos, in reptile journals, of some that have survived catastrophic injuries. Most notable was an individual that had gotten a plastic 6-pack ring stuck around it’s shell years before. The turtle grew into adulthood, but with a small “waist”, caused by the plastic’s constriction at mid shell. She even reproduced! I’ve also been able to remove and hatch eggs found in road-killed females. They are very abundant even in NYC, although excessive hunting is taking a toll in some parts of the range. Thanks for the good dead and kind words, Best, Frank

  22. avatar

    Dear Frank. I live in southern N.H. While cutting my lawn, I came across a baby snapping turtle. He was in the middle of the lawn, heading in the direction of some woods which lead down a steep hill to a neighbors yard and then to a very busy street. there is no water anywhere. I called my vt and they said he isnt looking for water, only a place to hibernate. I am reading online that they hibernate under water. I have a small kids pool out back that i use for drinking water for wildlife. he is in there now with 2 by 4 boards coming in and out in case he wants to leave but after 24 hrs, he is still in there hiding. it is only about 6″ deep. what should i do? I think he can get out if he wants to. i even took him out and placed him on the wood to give him a chance to escape the pool but as soon as i walked away he dove back in. he obviously cant stay in that little water for long. should i take him out and send him on is way here, with no water in sight or find a body of water and put him near it? my son lives a couple miles away and has a huge swampy area behind his house. would he adjust to a new area or does he know where he is now and relocating him harmful?

  23. avatar

    Hi Doreen,

    Thanks for your concern, glad you wrote in. I’ve studied snapping turtles in the wild for several decades, in conjunction with my work at the Bx Zoo. They hibernate in water, not on land. In NH, the young sometimes hatch but do not dig out of the nest until spring, so in that sense they may overwinter on land. But usually they hatch in Aug-Sept, dig out, and head for water, which is what the one you found was likely doing. Overwintering in the nest is more common in Maine and Canada, where summers are shorter.

    It may be that the female traveled unusually far from water before nesting, or was re-located by someone who came across her and wound up nesting in an unusual spot. I’ve seen them 1.5 miles from water.

    It would be best to release the turtle in the swamp near your son’s house. Relocated adults sometimes try to wander back, but usually remain put if food etc is available., Youngsters adjust to nearly any natural or semi-natural body of water. In fact, released pets are well established (and an environmental concern) far outside their natural range – Japan, China, Europe, western USA, Brazil and elsewhere. Hibernation is instinctive, and there’s plenty of time for the turtle to adjust, so it will be fine.

    Please keep me posted, my readers and I would enjoy your report, and thanks again for taking the trouble to help out, Best, Frank

  24. avatar
    Steve Gilfillan

    Thanks for all you do for snapping turtles. They are a very misunderstood animal. Most people think they are aggressive but in fact they are mostly defensive. A shy creature that just wants to be left allow. I also believe they are a intelligent animal. I have a 4.5 year old common and he is near 24 pounds. He is a part of our family and free ranges our home. He is very docile and interactive. He seems to like spending time with me and goes out of his way to find me. He’s the most remarkable turtle I’ve ever worked with.

  25. avatar

    Hello Steve,

    Thanks for the kind words and interesting post, Enjoy, Best regards, Frank

  26. avatar

    Great article Frank Also enjoyed all the comments and your responses. Alison

  27. avatar

    Much appreciated, Alison, I hope all is well, Frank

  28. avatar

    I ran into what I thought was a full size snapping turtle while snorkeling a year or so ago. I didn’t know how big they got until I got home. I wasn’t sure if this one was an optical illusion so I hovered over it in about 12 feet of water. Since I snorkeled that area on a regular basis I figured it was at the very least 2.5 to 3ft wide and that is being conservative. I realized 2.5 was the largest they could be after researching online and started doubting my own eyes.

    This was i Maine. I refuse to give the location and would like to confirm it someday.

  29. avatar

    Hello,

    Many record-breakers have come from Maine; this may be in part due to the fact that one of the busiest commercial hunters operated out of Maine for many years but it does seem that individuals tend to be larger along the northern limit of the range. very difficult to estimate sizes…we’ve even made mistakes when photos were provided, but it would be interesting to hear what you learn. good luck, enjoy, Frank

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.

You may use these HTML tags and attributes: <a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <q cite=""> <strike> <strong>

About Frank Indiviglio

Read other posts by


avatar
Being born with a deep interest in animals might seem unfortunate for a native Bronxite , but my family encouraged my interest and the menagerie that sprung from it. Jobs with pet stores and importers had me caring for a fantastic assortment of reptiles and amphibians. After a detour as a lawyer, I was hired as a Bronx Zoo animal keeper and was soon caring for gharials, goliath frogs, king cobras and everything in-between. Research has taken me in pursuit of anacondas, Orinoco crocodiles and other animals in locales ranging from Venezuela’s llanos to Tortuguero’s beaches. Now, after 20+ years with the Bronx Zoo, I am a consultant for several zoos and museums. I have spent time in Japan, and often exchange ideas with zoologists there. I have written books on salamanders, geckos and other “herps”, discussed reptile-keeping on television and presented papers at conferences. A Master’s Degree in biology has led to teaching opportunities. My work puts me in contact with thousands of hobbyists keeping an array of pets. Without fail, I have learned much from them and hope, dear readers, that you will be generous in sharing your thoughts on this blog and web site. For a complete biography of my experience click here.
Scroll To Top