Snapping turtle (Chelydra serpentina)

Species Status: Special Concern in Canada; Vulnerable in Nova Scotia
Action Required: Nest protection

 With adults weighing up to 16 kg, the snapping turtle is the largest freshwater turtle in Canada. Unfortunately, these big reptiles face big problems — from hunters and poachers to polluted environments and shrinking habitats.

If its size doesn’t give it away, the snapping turtle’s long, serrated, crocodilian tail surely will. Because they can’t pull their heads or limbs into their shells, the snapping turtle can become defensive on land, using its sharp beak and strong jaws to injure attackers.

These omnivores feed on various aquatic plants and invertebrates, as well as fish, frogs, snakes, small turtles, aquatic birds and dead animals (so long as they are relatively fresh). Snapping turtles spend much of their lives in the water, although they are not particularly good swimmers. If you spot one on land in spring or early summer, chances are it’s a female searching for a site to lay her eggs.

Snapping turtles usually live in slow-moving water with a soft mud or sand bottom and lots of vegetation. They prefer shallow water so they can hide under the mud and leaves, with only their noses exposed to the surface to breathe. Snapping turtles often take advantage of artificial structures for nest sites, including gravel shoulders along roads, dams and gravel pits.

Although most of Canada’s snapping turtles live in southern Ontario, they can be found from the Maritimes west into southern Saskatchewan and parts of southern Alberta. They are also found in areas of the United States east of the Rocky Mountains.

Snapping turtle populations are very vulnerable to threats such as hunting, poaching and being hit by vehicles. Since they can take nearly 20 years to reach maturity, removing even a few adult snapping turtles can pose a serious threat to the population.

Another threat is loss of habitat due to agriculture, housing and road development. Nests are also vulnerable to human-subsidized predators, such as raccoons, whose numbers are artificially inflated by access to human garbage, crops and other food sources.

Finally, snapping turtles can accumulate many toxins from the surrounding environment over the course of their 70-year lifespan, affecting their health and ability to reproduce.

Recommended Recovery Actions

The proposed national Management Plan for snapping turtles calls for a number of conservation measures, including discouraging the construction of new roads in snapping turtle habitat; conserving, managing and restoring habitat; and documenting the illegal harvest of snapping turtles. Key research questions include understanding the effect of human-subsidized predation on snapping turtle populations and developing techniques to reduce its impact.

What we are doing

Find out how Wildlife Preservation Canada helps save Canada’s reptiles and amphibians, including snapping turtles, and how you can make a difference.