Common Snapping Turtle

Photo by Jodie Owen

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Scientific Name: Chelydra serpentina

Classification: Nongame species

Abundance: Statewide

Species Profile 


Common snapping turtle (Photo by Jeff Hall)

Common snapping turtle (Photo by Elizabeth Evans)

Additional Information

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.

What Attracts Snapping Turtles To An Area?

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.

What Should I Do If I See A Snapping Turtle In My Yard?

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.

What Do Snapping Turtles Eat?

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.

How Do I Get Rid Of Snapping Turtles In My Pond/Yard?

  • The WRC does not perform any trapping and removal services for wildlife (including snapping turtles).
  • In the event that a snapping turtle is causing documentable property damage (which is very rare), you can contact a licensed Wildlife Damage Control Agent to trap and remove the turtle. These agents are certified, private individuals who can remove a wild animal from your property when the animal is causing property damage. Click here to find contact information for a WDCA in your county. WDCAs do charge a fee for their services.
  • If an individual wishes to lethally remove a snapping turtle themselves, they can do so if they have been issued a Wildlife Depredation Permit. A Wildlife Depredation Permit is a free permit which can be obtained from a Wildlife Enforcement Officer or District Biologist. These permits are only issued in situations where documented property damage is occurring.

What Should I Do If A Snapping Turtle Is Crossing The Road?

If you see a snapping turtle crossing the road, you can do the following to help it:

  • Always put your own safety first. Be sure to watch out for oncoming vehicles, signal properly when pulling over and put your hazard lights on before attempting to get out and rescue an animal. If a road is very busy or has a lot of traffic, it may not be safe for you to intervene.
  • When moving a turtle across the road, always remove the turtle in the direction it was headed. Even if the direction the turtle was traveling does not seem like a good idea to you, it is very important to move it in that same direction to prevent it crossing the road again or getting disoriented.
  • Never pickup a snapping turtle by the tail. Snapping turtles are heavy and carrying them by the tail can cause severe dislocation and injury to their spinal column. 
  • The safest way to get a snapping turtle to move is by not directly handling it.
    • If there is no oncoming traffic, let the turtle cross the road without help and observe from a distance to avoid startling it and causing it to change directions.
    • If the turtle needs to be moved quickly, you can gently push a turtle to the other side of the road using an object like a car mat, container or shovel as a barrier between you and the turtle. Click here to see a video outlining safe ways to move a large snapping turtle across a road.
    • If you feel you must handle the snapping turtle you should grab it by the back end of the shell to minimize your risk of being bitten. Keep in mind that these turtles have very powerful claws that can still scratch you from this position, and that many species of turtle will empty their bladder when lifted off the ground.
  • Resist the temptation to take the turtle home or move it to a different location. Although it may seem like a good idea by taking the turtle to a perceived better location, turtles are homebodies who spend their entire lives in the same areas. This means that turtles have preferential places they like to hide, nest, forage and overwinter. Relocating a turtle outside of its home range often results in the turtle dying from stress and not being able to find its way back to its original home.

Snapping Turtle Health Concerns

  • If you have found a young or hatchling snapping turtle in your yard, it is best to leave the animal alone and do not attempt to relocate it. It is normal for snapping turtles to be very small when they first hatch, and they do not require any parental care to survive. After hatching the turtles will make their way to the closest body of water where they will forage and hide from predators along shallow, grassy edges.
  • If you have found an injured snapping turtle you should contact a licensed wildlife rehabilitator who takes in reptiles. Always contact a licensed rehabilitator first to make sure they are willing to accept an animal before attempting to capture or help injured wildlife. Find contact information for current rehabilitators here.