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Snapping Turtle

Chelydra serpentina

Description

The snapping turtle is the largest freshwater turtle in Canada, with adults weighing between 4.6 – 16 kg.  The shell is light brown to black in colour, typically covered in algae, and measures between 20-36 cm.  The distinctive serrated tail is crocodilian in appearance and the same length as, or longer than, the shell.  On land the snapping turtle can become defensive as they cannot pull their head or limbs into their shell, and its sharp beak and strong jaws can cause injury if harassed. When in the water, however, snapping turtles will generally swim away to escape danger and they are not known to bite swimmers.  Snapping turtles only occasionally emerge from the water to bask, yet they do not swim particularly well and are often observed walking on the bottom of water bodies.  They are omnivorous and feed on various aquatic plants and invertebrates, as well as fish, frogs, snakes, small turtles, aquatic birds and relatively fresh carrion.  Females reach maturity between 17-19 years of age and build nests in May or June.  Snapping turtles spend much of their lives in the water, and individuals seen on land or crossing roads in spring or early summer are usually females searching for egg-laying sites.  A single clutch can contain between 20-40 eggs, resembling ping-pong balls.

Habitat

Snapping turtles most often inhabit slow-moving water with a soft mud or sand bottom and abundant vegetation.  They prefer shallow waters so they can hide under the soft mud and leaf litter, with only their noses exposed to the surface to breathe.  These turtles hibernate in the mud or silt on the bottom of lakes and rivers, usually not too far from the shore.  During the nesting season, snapping turtles often take advantage of man-made structures for nest sites, including gravel shoulders along roads, dams and aggregate pits.

Distribution and Population Size

The snapping turtle occurs from the Maritimes west into southern Saskatchewan and parts of southern Alberta, with isolated populations in New Brunswick, though it is primarily limited to the southern part of Ontario.  They are found in areas of the United States east of the Rocky Mountains.  The snapping turtle’s range is contracting, and the Committee on the Status of Endangered Wildlife in Canada lists it as a species of special concern.

Threats to Survival

Snapping turtle populations are very vulnerable to threats such as road mortality, hunting and poaching.  Since they can take nearly 20 years to reach maturity, the removal of even a few adult snapping turtles can pose a serious threat to the population.  Snapping turtles are also long-lived – up to 70 years – and can bioaccumulate many toxins from their environment, affecting their health and ability to reproduce.

What you can do to help

  • Every year, turtles must cross busy roads to get to their nesting sites – watch for turtles on the roads, especially between May and October.
  • Never buy native species of turtles or any turtles that have been caught in the wild.
  • Don’t disturb nests, young or adults – be respectful and observe from a distance.
  • Help reverse the loss of turtle habitat by protecting or restoring wetlands and surrounding vegetation on your property.

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