Snapping Turtle

A crystal clear creek at LaBarque, and crayfish and whirlgig beetles were stirring. It was cloudy and a storm was upon us, when we spotted a figure moving slowly up stream. At first we thought it might be a muskrat or beaver, but as we approached, I was delighted to see a corrugated shell and claws— belonging to no other than a snapping turtle (Chelydra serpentina). The snapper didn’t flee, but tucked itself against the streambank, freezing and lowering the head when it perceived me. It periodically raised its head to the surface, only sticking out the tip of its nose to breathe, then it would resubmerge back to safety. Very few predators have the gumption to take adult snappers down, but otters and coyotes are sometimes up for the task. Snapping turtles are infamous for their powerful bite, which is as effective at catching prey as for predator defense. They can jut out their necks out at astonishing speeds and exert over 30 pounds of force when clamping down with their sharp jaws. Together with their monstrous spiny tails, the ability to overwinter under ice without breathing for hundreds of days… and live well over a hundred years(!), they are truly a relict to behold.

Unlike their aquatic crocodilian relatives, turtles have received less attention regarding vocal communication. Turtles may not have the best hearing, but they are well-suited to detect low frequency sound, having maximum sensitivities around 100-600 Hz in freshwater and marine species. Over the past few decades, calls have been described in over 50 turtle species, some of which have extensive vocal repertoires. For example, the Australian long-necked turtle (Chelodina oblonga) has over 17 distinct calls that vary from percussive clicks to harmonic chirps and sustained pulses lasting 10 minutes. Acoustic signals are used in various ecological contexts, such as courtship, mate choice, parent-offspring communication, and hatchling emergence. For the common snapping turtle, hatchling sounds and vocalizations have also been documented, and call patterns become increasingly complex as the embryos mature. Vocalizations may help synchronize hatching among siblings in a clutch, which increases the chances of successful emergence from buried nests and reduces susceptibility to predation. However, cues from multiple sensory modalities likely play a role in coordinating hatching, including perception of egg vibrations and detection of embryonic heart beats throughout development.

Underwater photos taken after slight disturbance [2] and above water after capture [5]

Photo by Josh Klostermann

Another common snapping turtle (Chelydra serpentina), found making its way across a hilly road. Only about palm-sized, this juvenile was reluctant to bite in self-defense. Instead, the turtle tucked its head into the shell and closed its eyes. Before I picked it up, the turtle kept positioning its shell towards my hand as a shield, anchored and rotated by its hind legs and rigid tail. Similar behaviors are described in this natural history note.

Photographed when released at a nearby park [5]

One reply to “Snapping Turtle

  1. Hello Christian,

    I emailed you a few days ago to ask for permission to use one of your beautiful nature photographs. Not sure that you received it, I’ll paste it in below.

    Burt Kornegay

    Dear Christian,

    While reading your natural history blog—and thank you for posting it—I saw your close-up photo of a snapping turtle’s eye: I write to ask if I may use this photo in a monthly outdoor column that I write for a well-known regional newspaper here in western North Carolina, Smoky Mountain News.

    My column is titled “Up Moses Creek”—Moses Creek being where my wife and I have lived for many years—and its topics are about encounters we have with the plants, animals, and natural elements in our neighborhood.

    This month I wrote a two-part column about a snapping turtle that has lived in our pond for many years, titled “Snapper, Part I.” Here’s the link to it in the paper’s online site:

    In June I’ll publish “Snapper Part II.” The June column ends with my looking through binoculars into the snapping turtle’s eye, and I compare the beauty of that eye to that of the total solar eclipse that I saw here in 2017. Your uo-close photo shows the same eye that I saw.

    I write to ask if I may include your photo in the June column. I can’t offer you payment for the photograph because I’m not paid myself. I write them for the love of it. But you will be given credit for the photograph; or I can ask the editor if she will include your blog address.

    Also, if you give me your postal mailing address, I’ll send you a paper copy of the article. And because Smoky Mountain News puts all their print arrticles online, you’ll be able to post a link to this one in your blog.

    Please let me know if I have permission to use your photograph in the June issue of Smoky Mountain News.

    Burt Kornegay
    Cullowhee, NC

Leave a Reply

%d bloggers like this:
close-alt close collapse comment ellipsis expand gallery heart lock menu next pinned previous reply search share star