Stories concerning immense Snapping Turtles (Chelydra serpentina) abound wherever this impressive reptile occurs, but most are difficult to substantiate. I’ve kept and observed this species from childhood. Once I embarked upon a career in herpetology, I had the good fortune of meeting a great many impressive Snapping Turtles and Snapping Turtle researchers, and was able to gather information on some true giants (I’ve encountered fewer Alligator Snapping Turtles, but one under my care weighed 206 pounds!). Today I’ll highlight some interesting facts and figures concerning larger-than-average snappers. I’d also like to draw your attention to a late-breaking threat to their survival. Sadly, a bill currently before the NYS Assembly will, if passed, allow commercial trapping of this magnificent animal. Please see below for further information, and check out this posting by turtle conservationist Allen Salzberg (scroll down to “Snapping Turtles under Attack”) for information on how to register your opposition to this ill-advised legislation.
The largest Snapping Turtle I’ve handled tipped the scales at 68 pounds, and added more weight over time (please see photo). Its “straight line” carapace length was 18.6 inches (“straight line” means that the measurement was taken via calipers, as is done for published accounts; stretching a tape measure over the shell’s curve adds to the measurement). The largest wild-caught individual appears to be a 22 inch-long 76.5 pound behemoth captured in New Hampshire (most record-sized Snappers and Alligator Snappers originate from the northern part of the range). Turtles artificially fattened in captivity, such as the 82-86 pound animal frequently cited in field guides, are known.
How Common are Giant Snapping Turtles?
I gleaned the following information from conversations with colleagues and various reports. The turtles involved were collected in the northeastern USA, for the commercial food market, over a 28-year period ending in the early 1990’s.
Of 84,000 Snapping Turtles recorded, only 160 weighed 50 pounds or more. Amazingly, twenty two 50+ pound turtles were collected from a single lake, in a single day (this, of course, is very disturbing, and bodes terribly for the species…please see below). Of these 160 turtles, 3 or 4 topped the 60 pound mark. A 67 pounder held the record as the largest wild-caught snapper until the appearance of the 76.5 pound individual mentioned earlier. Since that time, another of 68 pounds has been collected.
All of the 50+ pound Snapping Turtles were males. The heaviest female on record weighed 44 pounds. Female Alligator Snappers are also substantially smaller than males, which may weigh over 200 pounds. As far as is known, no female of this species has exceeded 70 pounds in weight.
Large Urban Snappers
If undisturbed, Snappers often adapt to urban and suburban situations. I found two huge males (on land) near the Bronx River, on the grounds of the Bronx Zoo. One, which had an injured jaw, was quite emaciated but still weighed-in at 49 pounds. I installed him in an outdoor pond near the zoo’s Reptile House, where he recovered and “filled out” (see this article ).
Another male of 45 pounds or so was taken to Social Tee’s Animal Rescue, a wonderful facility operated by good friend and reptile expert Robert Shapiro. The reactions of passersby as we attended the huge beast on an East Village (NYC) sidewalk outside Social Tee’s were most amusing; please see this article. Several of the largest animals I’ve seen were taken from surprisingly small bodies of water on Long Island, NY.
An Imminent Survival Threat: Please Help!
As mentioned, legislation now before the NYS Assembly would legalize the trapping of Snapping Turtles. Currently, snappers may only be taken via gun or longbow in NY. Trapping is much more effective than hunting, and could quickly place this iconic reptile, which has beaten the survival odds even in NYC, in jeopardy. Legalized trapping would also result in the incidental capture of rare and endangered species such as Wood, Bog, Blanding’s and Spotted Turtles.
In the mid 1990’s, I spearheaded a project that sought to document mercury levels in Florida Soft-shell Turtles offered for sale in NYC food markets. Dangerous levels were found, but red tape and other factors intervened and nothing of substance was accomplished. Snapping Turtles have also been shown to accumulate toxins, but this seems not to be of concern to the NYS Senate, which has already passed the trapping bill (the Assembly has not yet voted…please see the link in this article’s Introduction if you wish to help).