Savage, sinister, vicious. A reptilian terror.
These are just some of the words biologists have used to describe the ferocious snapping turtle. He lives in muddy rivers, streams, ponds, or marshes. He’ll embed himself in the mud and look like a rock—his beady eyes alert for unsuspecting fish swimming by—or prowl along a pond’s edge, hunting frogs and stalking young waterfowl. Then he’ll suddenly thrust out his head to capture and devour his prey. He’ll drag a bird underwater, drown it, and then use his dangerously sharp, hooked beak, strong jaw, and forelimbs to tear it apart. In fact the jaws of a full-grown snapping turtle are so strong that they could sever a human finger.
There are a few of these savage creatures at the Huyck Preserve living in Lincoln Pond, Lake Myosotis, and elsewhere. Note that in the scientific name, Chelydra serpentina, “serpentine” suggests snake. Indeed, the snapping turtle’s biting motion is as quick as a rattlesnake strike. The most famous, and likely the oldest, snapping turtle at the Preserve is Scarneck, so named for the ugly scar on the back of his neck. Weighing 50-60 pounds, and measuring 13 inches wide by 16 inches long, he could be more than 75 years old. We have a photo of him from the 1940s as well as ones taken of him in summer 2016. He lives in Lincoln Pond.
Maybe Scarneck got that scar by fighting. Snapping turtles are aggressive and fight often. “It believes most thoroughly in the survival of the fittest, and to it the Fittest is ‘Number One,’” wrote American zoologist and conservationist William T. Hornaday in 1914. “It is a chronic fighter, and inasmuch as its jaws are very strong—and [it] never knows when to let go—it is a reptile to be either mastered or avoided.”
Researchers haven’t studied snapping turtles at the Preserve—they have focused on the more benign wood turtles and painted turtles instead—but they have recorded their observations about them from time to time. Jean Piatt, who specialized in frogs and was the Preserve’s resident biologist in 1941, reported collecting a 35-pound snapping turtle, which he and the other biologists promptly killed and ate for dinner. While it may seem startling for scientists at a field station to kill and devour specimens, they apparently thought catching and eating snapping turtles was no different than catching and eating fish. Snapper soup is still considered a delicacy by some.
One of the scientists who dined on the Huyck snapping turtle was Cornell biologist Ed Raney. He studied frogs at the Preserve (1939-1943), but in 1954, he wrote an article for the journal Copeia about a fight between two large snapping turtles at Cornell’s Ringwood Preserve near Ithaca, New York. The turtles were near a cleared hummock in the middle of a large pond. “In combat they faced each other and each attempted by rapid thrusts of the head to grasp the other by the neck,” Raney wrote. They used their front feet to keep from being grabbed and were making low puffing sounds throughout the struggle. “Occasionally one would make contact by mouth. Then both would either sink slowly under water where much bubbling could be seen and heard, or the one that was bitten would roll on its back, and with this twisting motion seemed to be consistently successful in freeing itself.” They’d be under water for about 30 seconds, and as they resurfaced, they’d start fighting again. Finally, when the fighting subsided, there didn’t seem to be a winner, but neither seemed to be badly injured. Raney was puzzled as to what the fight was all about—it was August, and typically mating season was in May and eggs deposited in June. “Therefore the combat seems not to be associated with territorial fighting in connection with reproduction,” he concluded. “Perhaps it indicates a tendency for a snapping turtle to defend an area at a time other than the spawning season.”
In the 1970s, another Preserve researcher—Edmund Brodie Jr., who was studying amphibians and aquatic insects—described defensive behavior in snapping turtles he’d observed in South Carolina. Most turtles, when threatened, defend themselves by retracting their head and limbs into their shell. But not the snapping turtle. Instead, he assumes the downward dog yoga position: He lowers the front of his shell and extends his back legs while he’s hissing and lunging at the predator. If the threat comes from the side, the snapper dips sideways so his shell faces the predator.
One can only assume that Scarneck must have been quite successful in defending his territory, and protecting himself from predators, to still be alive after so many years.
And who knows how many offspring Scarneck has produced.
The snapping turtle mating season is in May. In June or July, the female leaves her pond to find a suitable place to lay her eggs. She may travel a mile or more, even crossing roads, in her journey. Once she finds a good nesting spot, she’ll dig a hole with her hind legs, lay 20-40 creamy white eggs the size of small ping-pong balls, and bury them. The nest-building process could take as long as a week. Then she’ll trudge home. Generally it takes 80-90 days for the eggs to hatch. The inch-long, soft-shelled hatchlings burrow up to the surface, and then instinctively find their way to water. Of course, they have to evade all kinds of predators that want to eat them—raccoons, foxes, dogs, skunks, birds, and snakes. Even when they reach the water, they have to watch out for fish and other snapping turtles. But once the young’uns have grown and their shells harden, they are less vulnerable. It takes around five years for males to reach reproductive maturity; it takes females four to seven years.
Old Scarneck reached maturity a long time ago and he’s still going strong. We hope he stays with us for a good long time.
Ditmars, Raymond L., “Reptiles of the World,” New York: The Macmillan Company, 1927
Dodd, C. Kenneth, Jr. and Edmund D. Brodie, Jr., “Notes on the defensive behavior of the snapping turtle, Chelydra serpentina.” Herpetologica 31:286-288, 1975.
Hornaday, William T., The American Natural History, Volume 4—Reptiles, Amphibians, and Fishes, New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, pages 39-41, 1914.
Raney, Edward C. and Josephson, Ruth A., Record of combat in the snapping turtle, Chelydra serpentina. Copeia 1954:228, 1954.
Snapping turtle fact sheet (Publication of the Snapping Turtle fact sheet was funded by the South Dakota Department of Game, Fish and Parks, Division of Wildlife, Pierre, SD.): https://www3.northern.edu/natsource/REPTILES/Snappi1.htm
The Mating Season and Reproduction of the Snapping Turtle: http://animals.mom.me/mating-season-reproduction-snapping-turtle-1721.html
University of Michigan, Museum of Zoology: http://animaldiversity.org/accounts/Chelydra_serpentina/
Bosch, A. 2003. “Chelydra serpentine” (On-line), Animal Diversity Web. Accessed March 05, 2017 at http://animaldiversity.org/accounts/Chelydra_serpentina/
Conn Dept of Energy and Environmental Protection: http://www.ct.gov/deep/cwp/view.asp?a=2723&q=469200
Link to blog post on Raney: https://lscnews.wordpress.com/2011/03/28/tagging-frogs/