Scientific Name: Chelydra serpentina
Classification: Nongame species
Photo by Jodie Owen
This common and familiar animal is North Carolina’s largest freshwater turtle. Its large head and long tail make identification easy. Snappers are so named because they defend themselves by snapping and biting aggressively when handled or otherwise molested. They are top-level predators in many food chains and are important components in aquatic ecosystems. Snapping turtles have large heads with powerful jaws and necks. The carapace has a jagged posterior edge and three longitudinal keels, which are most prominent in young specimens. The plastron is small and cross-shaped. The tail, adorned above with large, saw-toothed scales, is much longer than that of any other North Carolina turtle. The shell offers only limited protection to the head and limbs, causing these turtles to rely largely on their strong jaws for defense. The skin and shell are usually brownish above and whitish or yellowish below. The skin is thick, with numerous tubercles, and the powerful limbs have large claws. The carapace is often encrusted with algae. Male snappers are, on the average, larger than females.
Snappers occur in most freshwater habitats and sometimes enter brackish water. They are most common in large, permanent, relatively quiet bodies of water, such as ponds, lakes, swamps, canals and rivers. More aquatic than most of our turtles, they seldom bask but often swim near the surface. They may wander considerable distances over land between bodies of water, especially during rainy periods in spring and early summer. They frequently cross roads, and many are killed by motor vehicles.
When closely approached on land, a snapping turtle often elevates its hindquarters, gapes its jaws and then suddenly lunges with a snakelike strike at the offending object. They may also secrete a strong-smelling musk from glands along the sides of the body when irritated. In water they are more at home, usually retreating or withdrawing when confronted by a larger animal.
Learn more by reading the common snapping turtle species profile.
They are not currently listed under any category of special protection, but a wildlife collection license is required to collect more than four reptiles in a year. Commercial collecting of snappers for their meat has probably reduced populations in some areas, and in some states such activities have resulted in the need for protective legislation. In North Carolina, once a wildlife collection license is acquired, up to 10 turtles per day and 100 per year may be harvested. How to measure a snapping turtle.
Snapping turtles are large freshwater turtles that are fairly common across North Carolina. When closely approached on land, a snapping turtle often elevates its hindquarters, gapes its jaws and lunges at the offending object. Although snapping turtles may defend themselves when they feel threatened, they are by no means aggressive and will not attack/bite people or pets unless they are purposefully provoked. In water they are less aggressive, usually retreating or withdrawing when confronted by a larger animal.
Snapping turtles can be found in a variety of freshwater habitats and occasionally brackish water as well. They are most common in large, permanent, bodies of water, such as ponds, lakes, swamps, canals and rivers. More aquatic than most of our other turtle species, they rarely bask but will often swim near the water surface. During the spring and summer it is not unusual to see snapping turtles on land looking for nesting areas. Like most turtles, snapping turtles prefer to lay their eggs in loose or sandy soil in areas that receive a lot of sunlight. The majority of snapping turtle nests are consumed by predators like raccoons, foxes, and skunks within 48 hours of being laid.
Snapping turtles can wander considerable distances over land and between bodies of water, especially during rainy periods in spring and summer. During these times it is not unusual to see them on land, crossing roads or moving through someone’s yard/neighborhood. If you see a snapping turtle in your yard, the best thing to do is give the turtle space and let it leave on its own accord. Snapping turtles move surprisingly fast on land and will typically move out of sight within an hour or two. Snapping turtles do not feed on land and do not intentionally chase after people and/or pets. Giving the animal space and not provoking it means there is no way the animal can hurt you.
Contrary to popular belief, a large proportion of a snapping turtles’ diet is made up of vegetation/plant matter. Much of their diet is scavenged as they forage in the mud along the bottom of waterbodies, using both sight and smell to detect food sources. Snapping turtles are omnivorous, opportunistic feeders, that will also feed on in vertebrates, fish, amphibians, reptiles, carrion and occasionally birds. Like other species of turtles, snapping turtles can not chew their food, and thus tend to prefer small prey items that can be swallowed whole.
If you see a snapping turtle crossing the road, you can do the following to help it:
Common snapping turtle species profile.
Wildlife Diversity Program Quarterly Reports
Common snapping turtle (Photo by Jodie Owen)
Common snapping turtle (Photo by Elizabeth Evans)