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The Common Snapping Turtle, Chelydra serpentina – Care in Captivity (with notes on the Alligator Snapping Turtle, Macroclemmys temmincki) Part 2

Click here to read the first part of this article
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, th4 year old common snapperey 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.

Captive Longevity
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.

Additional Resources

Keeping a snapping turtle is not easy, but can be very rewarding.

The Common Snapping Turtle, Chelydra serpentina – Care in Captivity (with notes on the Alligator Snapping Turtle, Macroclemmys temmincki) Part 1

Common Snapping Turtle Laying Eggs in NY

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.

Check back on Friday for the conclusion of this article.

The Snapping Turtle, Chelydra serpentina – Part I, Natural History and Behavior in the Wild (with notes on size records)

On May 7th of this year a fisherman in North Carolina caught a snapping turtle that is reputed to be 85 pounds in weight. If the weight proves accurate, this animal would be the largest of the species yet captured. There is an 86 pound animal on record, but this represented a “captive weight” (as those of us who have kept “snappers” know, they balloon in weight quickly in captivity).

The story sparked memories of large snapping turtles I have known, and once aHatchling Snapping Turtlesgain brought to mind how spectacular these relatively common creatures are. We tend to take them for granted here, but they make quite an impression to the uninitiated – hatchling snapping turtles are all the rage in the pet trade in Japan, being described in the media as “tiny dinosaurs” (not far off, in my opinion!).

Until this month’s catch, the largest wild-caught snapper on record was a 76 pound animal (the carapace measured 22 inches) taken from a deep lake in the northeastern USA. The vast majority of very large snapping turtles come from the northern parts of their range (the same holds true for their gigantic cousin, the alligator snapping turtle, Macroclemmys temmincki). As an indication of just how rare such creatures are, consider the following – a review of commercial turtle fisherman’s records show that of 84,000 adult turtles reported, only 160 topped 50 pounds in weight. Of these, only 4 weighed 60 pounds or more. These largest individuals were all males – the heaviest female known tipped the scales at 44 pounds.

Relatively small ponds on Long Island, NY have produced some giants – two that I worked with weighed 54 and 63 pounds when captured. The heavier of these, now a massive 80 pounder, is on exhibit at the Cold Spring Harbor Fish Hatchery (http://www.cshfha.org/).

Of the many large snapping turtles that I have encountered in the wild and in zoos, two in particular stand out (a “small” 15 pound white snapper from NJ is also memorable). Both were found wandering on land (highly unusual) near the Bronx River, in the heart of the Bronx, NY, and showed evidence of recent battles with (most likely) even larger males. The first was delivered to a friend who does animal rehabilitation from his facility in NYC. In order to check the turtle for injuries, we put him on the sidewalk and commenced to hose him off. As the turtle lumbered down East 4th Street, I was, as is usual in such situations, treated to interesting observations of my fellow New Yorkers – some gathered and traded stories while others walked briskly around it as though the 45 pound monster were no more than an upturned garbage can barring their progress!

The second turtle weighed 49 pounds, but was quite emaciated due, I believe, to a severely injured lower jaw that had healed but limited his ability to feed. I installed this fellow in a large outdoor pond near the Bronx Zoo’s reptile house. He soon learned to respond to the sound of my palm striking the water, and would gingerly take a trout (yes, he was spoiled!) from my hand. As they say “Don’t try this at home!” – snappers, even long-term captives, have notoriously well-developed striking abilities, and can cause severe damage injuries (this animal was prevented from doing so by his damaged jaw).

I have worked with most of the giants of the turtle world – leatherbacks, Galapagos and Aldabra tortoises, giant Asian soft-shells and alligator snapping turtles – and will write about them from time to time. For now I’ll pass along some more information about snapping turtles in the wild, and address their care in captivity in Part II of this article.

Most of southern and eastern Canada and the United States, east of the Rocky Mountains; subspecies range from Mexico to Ecuador. Widely introduced – California, Nevada and other states in west USA, Japan.

Shallow streams, swamps and ponds to deep lakes and rivers; ponds in city parks and on farms. Some populations inhabit brackish water (tidal rivers and marshes) and have evolved a means of excreting excess salt (Note: I live near a population of these remarkable “salt water snappers” and will report back on them in the future). Rarely leaves the water except to lay eggs; often basks while floating at the surface.

Often the most common turtle within its range and still to be found in quite large cities, yet threatened by collection for the food trade in some areas. In NYC, is relatively common in Central Park, the Bronx River and most other sizable bodies of water; widely farmed. Introduced populations severely impact native turtles and other wildlife.

Massive head, powerful jaws and a long neck. The dark carapace (upper shell) is keeled and serrated at the rear edge. The plastron (lower shell) is quite small. The tail is thick, as long as the carapace, and topped with ridges.

To 40 or more years in captivity and to at least 24 years in the wild, but potentially much longer.
In my experience, most females in NYC and the immediate environs lay their eggs on rainy nights in early June. I am always rewarded by the sight of nesting females on such nights and during the following mornings. If you have a chance to visit nesting sites during the breeding season, please do so. You will not be disappointed – egg-laying is fairly well-synchronized in many areas, resulting in a spectacular emergence of females where populations are large.

Mating occurs throughout the spring, summer and fall. Females lay 25-85 eggs, 1-1/8 inches in diameter, in a self-dug hole. Nesting sites are generally in open locations. Females often choose newly dug earth, i.e. dirt piles at construction sites (how they unerringly locate such piles, I do not know – but it is a quite definite choice in my experience).

Incubation takes 9-18 weeks, depending upon weather conditions. In the northeast, hatchlings may over-winter in the nest and emerge in the spring. Females can retain sperm and lay fertile eggs for years after a single mating.

The young, jet black in color, forage for insects, worms and carrion in shallow water, and often remain buried beneath the mud with only the eyes and nostrils exposed (as do adults). Hatchlings are preyed upon by large fish, bull frogs, wading birds and other turtles.

Nearly any animal within their habitat – fish, frogs, smaller turtles, snakes, insects, snails, crayfish, carrion, muskrats and other semi-aquatic mammals; also take crabs, mussels and clams in tidal streams. A 30 pound individual in a pond at the Bronx Zoo once killed an adult mute swan, and I know of a 10 pound turtle that tried to drag a full grown Canada goose below the water’s surface! Some vegetation is taken as well. Often caught on fishing lines.


Notes concerning nesting snapping turtles (as well as general observations on other turtles) are posted at:http://www.fmap.ca/ramweb/papers-total/James_2004.pdf

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