Please see Part I of this article and the short entry titled “Miscellaneous Notes” for information on natural history.
As mentioned in Part I of this article, snapping turtles are held in great regard as pets in places where they are not native. This is not surprising – they are hardy and interesting, and grow into impressively large animals. They are, however, not for everyone, and careful consideration should be give before acquiring a snapping turtle or its much larger cousin, the alligator snapping turtle. Hatchlings are irresistibly cute, but growing animals require a great deal of space, strong filtration systems and careful handling.
Aquarium Size and Physical Setup
Snapping turtles are entirely aquatic, rarely bask and usually leave the water only to lay eggs. Hatchlings and small turtles are best kept in water of a depth that allows them to breathe by extending their necks to the surface. They mainly walk about the bottom and are not good swimmers. If kept in deep water, they should be provided with sunken branches and rocks that provide a “highway” to the surface, lest they be weakened by the strain of swimming.
Hatchlings are invariably shy at first, and should be provided with bottom cover in the form of artificial plants under which they can hide. Nearly all become quite bold after a time – a hiding place such as a clay pot or other shelter will still be used, however.
Animals up to 10 inches or so in carapace length can be accommodated in a 55 gallon aquarium. After that point, a larger tank or outdoor pond is best. Snapping turtles can also be maintained in plastic sweater boxes and storage tubs which are dumped or drained and cleaned as needed).
Substrate complicates cleaning and is best avoided for all except hatchlings. Smooth rocks and driftwood that comes to within a few inches of the surface will allow the turtle a comfortable resting site.
Snapping turtles have disproportionately long, thick tails and can use them quite well as props while climbing. Be sure their enclosure is well covered, or too deep from which to escape. They are quite alert and will definitely take advantage of any mistakes you make in this regard.
Filtration can be a problem, especially for larger animals. Be sure to use a suitably powerful canister, submersible or pond filter. Small turtles will be stressed and unable to feed well if blown about by the filter’s outflow, so modify this by directing it upward or against a rock if necessary. Water changes, partial or full, will be required in addition to filtration.
A useful technique to help keep the tanks of “sloppy” feeders such as turtles clean is to feed the animals in a bucket or enclosure other than their home. Snappers will adjust well to this, and will often defecate after feeding if left in the feeding container for an hour or so after eating ( turtles, are, however, quite aware of their environments – some will try to escape as soon as they finish their meal, and may become stressed if left out of their tank for too long).
Light and Heat
Snapping turtles are among the most cold tolerant of the world’s turtles. I have observed them moving on the bottoms of ice-covered ponds, and basking at the water’s surface on warm days in February in NYC. Normal room temperatures are fine, and allowing them to cool slightly in winter is a good idea. They will continue to feed when temperatures are in the mid-60’s F, but less vigorously than in summer.
Snapping turtles rarely bask- when they do it is usually done in shallow water or while floating at the surface. In cool weather, an incandescent basking light will be appreciated. Unlike most turtles, snappers obtain Vitamin from their diet, and do not need a UVB source. However, such lighting more closely mimic’s the natural situation, and may provide other benefits. Therefore, I suggest using a Reptisun UVB 5.0 fluorescent bulb or a Repti-glo UVB bulb over your turtle’s enclosure.