Snapping turtles take a wide variety of prey (see Part I) and will accept nearly any animal-based food placed before them (hatchlings may need to be started on live blackworms and guppies, and weaned to non-living food items). However, in order to thrive, they require a variety of nutritious foods and a good deal of calcium.
Reptomin can be used as 50-75% of the diets of turtles small enough to accept it. Calcium is best supplied by offering whole fresh water fish (and crayfish and snails if available) on at least a weekly basis. Guppies, minnows, shiners and similar fish are fine. Goldfish can be used on an occasional basis, but a steady diet of these has been implicated in liver problems in other species. Marine fish (bait fish, Tilapia, etc.) are useful as an occasional treat as well. Meat table scraps are appreciated, but most of your turtle’s diet should consist of whole organisms and commercially prepared foods.
The balance of the diet should be as varied as possible – earthworms, crickets and other insects, crayfish, shrimp, freeze dried prawn, pink mice, waxworms, mealworms, etc. Snappers will also eagerly accept most frozen foods marketed for tropical fish and catfish and cichlid pellets , but such should be used as a treat, not a steady diet. Any insects you come across will be eagerly gobbled by young turtles, and will provide important dietary variety. Be sure to purchase different types of fresh water fish from your local fish market from time to time – this will be especially necessary for large turtles.
Larger animals may require unique strategies if they are to receive a balanced diet in captivity – please write in if you own a large turtle and would like some ideas.
Wild snappers may take plant material on occasion, but most captives do not. You might, however, experiment with kale, dandelion and other greens.
Snapping turtles have lived for over 40 years in captivity; the record for an alligator snapper is just over 70 years.
This is definitely a pet to observe, not handle. I’ll write about a safe technique for picking up large, aggressive turtles in the near future.
Social Groups and Breeding
Snapping turtles are best housed alone – in groups, feeding-related injuries are common and males are intolerant of each other. Small snappers can be housed with other turtles but, oddly enough, they are slow feeders at this stage and easily out-competed by other species. Larger animals will attempt to eat any and all tank-mates (I have a quite sad zoo story concerning this – please check back for future articles).
Snappers will breed in captivity if provided a cool winter period and access to a fairly deep nesting site. This requires space, but is possible – I’ll relate my own experiences in a future article. Please see Part I for notes on reproduction in the wild.
Alligator snapping turtles, Macroclemmys temmincki, are now bred commercially and available in a variety of sizes. Their husbandry follows that of the related common snapper, but there are enough fine points to warrant a separate article. Please stay tuned. Please also note that this species is among the world’s largest fresh water turtles, and may top 200 pounds in weight – hard to imagine when one contemplates buying a tiny hatchling. Please think before buying.
Keeping a snapping turtle is not easy, but can be very rewarding.
Excellent advice! I will be sure to try feeding in a separate container trick.
We have found huge stock tanks (those tanks used to water cows) as good enclosures for adults. We have however moved all aquatic animals into glass enclosures after several reports involving plastic storage containers (those not meant to contain food or water) leeching toxins into the water and sickening the inhabitants. You can however, use 50 gallon barrels used for storing pickles, sausage, and other food items as possible enclosures for young by cutting off the top to the desired height.
Great info, I look forward to seeing ideas for increasing diet variety in adult snappers.
-Jen Reptiles Alive Blog
Frank Indiviglio here. Thanks very much for the kind words; I’m glad the information proved useful.
Thanks also for pointing out the possibility of toxin leaching, very good to know.
Your stock tank idea is very worthwhile – the Bronx Zoo relies heavily upon them for reptiles and small mammals. We were even able to have the tanks fit with hinged lids, so all manner of reptiles live in them. Drainable and easy to clean, they are especially well-suited for snapping turtles. Small wooden “tables” serve as both basking sites and shelters…I suspect the tanks will be in use for decades to come.
50 gallon drums have quite a “snapper history” as well…although a few large ones have turned up recently (I handled an 82 pounder, at a fish hatchery, this summer) for decades the size record was held by an animal that weighed 85 pounds or so and had spent most of its growing years in a what was described as a “pickle barrel”. The story was recounted in many turtle books…it’s in Peter Pritchard’s wonderful Encyclopedia of Turtles, I believe.
As for providing a varied diet to larger turtles, you might consider:
Seafood markets – whole, freshwater fish such as catfish, American eels and other inexpensive, seasonally abundant species. I remove fin spines, just in case. Marine fish are fine on occasion – snappers enter brackish water, and some populations are limited to such areas (I know of 1 in New York); these feed on marine organisms exclusively, even excrete salt in a manner unseen in fresh water populations. Frozen “seafood mixes” (Pollock, mussels, clam, squid, etc.) also good from time to time. Markets in Korean and Chinese neighborhoods often have an incredible variety of reasonably priced fish and invertebrates.
Chicken organ meat (gizzards, etc.) can be alternated with chicken breast, etc, to provide a more balanced diet than either alone.
A friend who keeps a variety of turtles goes pan-fishing every so often and feeds his catch (sunfish, perch, bullheads etc.) to his collection. He also sets crayfish traps and does quite well (of course, it helps that he lives near a marsh in Louisiana!).
Night crawlers are quite expensive but in some places can be gathered in large numbers – beware of collecting near golf courses or other areas heavily sprayed with pesticides).
Golden shiners grow quite large, may be available wholesale from bait suppliers, but can be costly. Same as regards goldfish. Both species will grow rapidly in a tub, if that option is open to you.
Mazuri and other suppliers of zoo animal foods produce a large turtle pellet, suitable for adult snappers, but usually sell only in quantity.
Pre-killed mice and rats are an option, can be bred, but should not be used more than once every 2 weeks.
Seining in estuaries will often produce large hauls of mummichogs or similar minnows – these reach 5 inches or so and are stoutly built. Sunfish and yellow perch are often easy to seine in large numbers in weedy ponds (seining is great fun…all above make good aquarium fish as well!).
Local trout hatcheries sometimes sell off excess or injured/malformed fish cheaply…worth an inquiry if one is nearby. Trout are a great food, used extensively by zoos when possible, especially for species of special concern (Nile soft-shelled turtles, gharials).
It is consistently reported that adult snappers consume a good deal of plant material. I have not looked into this very much, as most of the large individuals I’ve kept were in public collections (so I wasn’t paying for the food!). I recall only one animal that accepted kale and dandelion…but these, as well as romaine, bok choy, collards and others might be worth more investigation…will probably take a good deal of time to habituate an animal that has been fed meat and fish only. Avoid spinach, as it may bind calcium.
Thanks again, please keep me posted on your progress and new ideas. Best regards, Frank Indiviglio.
Great articles on snapping turtles.
Thank you. I know we would all benefit from an article on alligator snapping turtles.
Thanks again for freely sharing all your knowledge & experience.
Hello, Frank Indiviglio here.
Very kind of you to take the time to write, thank you very much.
Thanks for the reminder…there are now a few well-established alligator snapping turtle breeders, and the species is becoming more popular lately. Owning one takes a good deal of forethought, but they certainly are one of the most unique and interesting turtles around. I will write more on them in the near future.
I’ve had the good fortune of speaking with Peter Pritchard often over the years…alligator snappers are a special interest. His Biology of the Alligator Snapping Turtle is a wonderful read on natural and “unnatural” history and conservation.
Best regards, Frank Indiviglio.
hello. im Latrissa. :]
I have a adult 12 in. common snapping turtle.he is very aggresive and i would like to find a way to pick him up without him attacking me. Isnt there a way to pick them up behind the head on the front of the shell without getting bit? please advise me to finding this out.
Hello Latrissa, Frank Indiviglio here.
Thanks for your interest in our blog.
Yes, you can safely pick up a snapping turtle by sliding your hand (from back to front) along the top of the upper shell until you reach a point just above the head. Please see my article Handling Snapping Turtles for a complete description of the technique. When trying this for the first time, it might be useful to wedge the front turtle’s shell against a wall, so that it cannot strike.
They are very interesting but plucky…be careful!
Good luck and please let me know how it works out for you.
Best regards, Frank Indiviglio.
can I house two alligator snapping turtle together?
Hello Alfonso, Frank Indiviglio here.
Thanks for your interest in our blog.
Very young animals can be housed together, but problems develop as they mature. Males fight and will also harass females when confined together. Two females will sometimes get along, but dominance problems can develop with them as well.
Before considering alligator snappers, please bear in mind their eventual size, and the fact that zoos rarely take donations (there are more usually several on zoo surplus lists at any given time). Few people can accommodate them properly at home – a 10 foot by 6 foot by 4 foot deep exhibit I kept at the Bronx Zoo proved 2 small for a pair that did not get along.
Good luck and please keep me posted.
Best regards, Frank Indiviglio.