Readers’ wildlife photos

March 29, 2021 • 10:00 am

by Greg Mayer

These photos were submitted by Leo Zaibert, who came across this turtle while out for a walk near his house in upstate New York, which is close to the Mohawk River. He was very impressed by its size and prehistoric demeanor, and surmised it was a snapping turtle (Chelydra serpentina), which indeed it was.

Snapping turtle (Chelydra serpentina), Niskayuna, NY, March 26, 2021.

It was crossing the road, heading toward the Mohawk, which Leo estimated to be about 100 yards away. At this point along the Mohawk the river is bordered by wetlands, which is probably where snapping turtles in the river would spend most of their time. The turtle stopped as Leo approached, assuming a more defensive posture. In the water a snapper will run away, but on land they raise and direct their shell toward a threat, and will bite. There are good summaries of snapper biology available on the web by the Virginia Herpetological Society and the Savannah River Ecology Lab, and for the truly dedicated a monograph edited by Anthony Steyermark, Michael Finkler, and Ronald Brooks (2008).

Snapping turtle (Chelydra serpentina), Niskayuna, NY, March 26, 2021.

This is a large adult. My guess is that it’s a female out looking for a nesting site. They need diggable soil in an area that won’t flood, so they need to be a few feet (at least) in elevation above the level of the water body they live in, and this can lead to them wandering along the roads, and even digging nests sometimes in the unpaved shoulders on the side of the road. In many turtles females are bigger than males, but in snappers males are larger. You can see a fairly luxuriant growth of algae on the snapper’s carapace, which is fairly typical. The algae has dried a bit, as the turtle has probably been wandering around on land  for a bit.

Snapping turtle (Chelydra serpentina), Niskayuna, NY, March 26, 2021.

Leo estimated its size at 40 inches, but I think this is an overestimate. The size of a wild animal, especially a bulky one like a snapper, is often overestimated, but this is not so much an error as a reaction to the unexpected appearance of an impressive beast. Snappers have big heads, long necks, and long tails, which adds to the impression of size: the tail is a bit shorter than the shell length, and the extended neck is quite long too, so that the total length of a snapper is well over twice the shell length.

My fairly large snapper (I went up to my lab and measured after getting Leo’s photos) is 10 3/8 inches straight line in the midline shell length, 8 inches tail length (the tip was infected and fell off many years ago, so would probably be about 8.5 inches), and the neck and head stretched out 7 inches toward my finger, but could probably reach a few inches more (I didn’t want my finger close enough to actually elicit a strike!), for a total length of 25+ inches, but less than 30 inches. A really big snapper would be about 14 inches in shell length, which would be about 35 inches total including neck and tail. (The record shell size for the species is 19 inches, which would make it over 40 inches in total length.)

Big snappers are very impressive beasts; at the Virginia Herpetological Society page there’s a photo of a guy holding an 18 inch shell (the state record) that shows how really large they are. There’s a species down south, the alligator snapping turtle (Macrochelys temminckii), that gets much bigger: up to 31 inches shell length, and over 200 lbs.!

Leo, who wished it to be recorded that he is a “noted expert on herpes or something”, is a philosopher, and reported that on a previous gallivant along the banks of the river that he miraculously emerged from the “treacherous quicksand of the Mohawk”, though I suspect it was deep mud, myself.

Steyermark, A.C., M.S. Finkler and R.J. Brooks. 2008. Biology of the Snapping Turtle (Chelydra serpentina). Johns Hopkins University Press, Baltimore. JHU Press

28 thoughts on “Readers’ wildlife photos

  1. Thank you. I’ve always wondered what a snapping turtle looked like. I know I could look it up but whenever I thought about it information wasn’t currently available. Like in a canoe.

  2. Thanks for the photos of snapping turtles. I grew up in Minnesota on a lake that had them and I still remember one particularly large one that bit through a rake handle.

  3. The family name Herpesviridae (Herpesvirus) is derived from the Greek word herpein ‘to creep’, […]

    “Source” : Wikipedia (slight edit)

    Reptiles can creep too – perhaps the etymology is not a mistake.

      1. These comments are interesting but my point is what “herpes” means – “to creep”, “reptile”, both, or more, and if so, how does herpesvirus “creep”…. and now I get the Radiohead joke… but of course I’ll have to read about this later…

  4. Nice photos of the snapper. Many of them in lakes throughout the Midwest as well. I don’t think they have many enemies other than humans. Sometimes you can see them swimming on the surface with the head out front and the shell slightly coming out of the water further behind.

  5. When I was 10, we lived for a year in a semi-rural area near a slow-moving river. One day my brother and I went off to check out the river, and spotted a similarly-sized snapping turtle. So we ran home, grabbed a wheelbarrow, spade, and a rake, and somehow managed to get the turtle into the wheelbarrow, then rolled it home, before releasing it back where we found it. My mum is still amazed at us bringing it home with a “Look what we found!” attitude.

    It was kind of a weird year, where we would find something interesting and then bring it home to show mum. One of our other finds was a baby groundhog.

  6. I’m sure the ones I see are under 2 feet in shell length, but yes they do seem a lot bigger! And their head is disproportionally large. Still, they are ponderous, prehistoric in every manner, irritable, smelly, and impressively strong. They are also never at all grateful when I rescue them from alongside roads.

    1. Nice snapper snaps?!

      I wonder if people used to eat them? I seem to recall David Sedaris fed his tumour to one!

    1. Same here. They are my spirit animals, well, they would be if I had a spirit. But, are you aware that the alligator snapping turtle was split into three species a few years ago? Macrochelys temminckii, M. apalachicolae, and M. suwanniensis. Try saying that three times fast..,or spelling it correctly. There’s also other species and subspecies in the genus Cheyldra. Magnificently beasties! I can’t imagine why anyone would want to hurt such fantastic creatures.

      Side note: I once raised six baby snappers from eggs I salvaged from their roadkill mother. I called them my zombies. I was so thrilled to release them back into the wild, hopefully they’ll stay far away from roads. Long may they run, well, swim.

    1. Here we have Eastern Long Neck Turtles in the ponds in Adelaide Botanic Garden. We are suspicious that they eat baby grebes (?greblings), and were the reason that out of a recent clutch of four, only one fledged.

  7. I love that descriptor, “prehistoric!” Where my family and I live in central Lake County, Illinois, my property abuts a wetland, a kind of mini-nature reserve, and as a consequence, we are regularly visited by all kinds of turtles, who find the areas around our vegetable and flower gardens to be ideal spots to lay their eggs. I’ve watched the females use their powerful tails to drill a hole into the ground where they deposit their eggs. Back to prehistoric: The first time my kids and I saw a huge snapper plodding across our backyard with its tail and head fully extended it reminded us of either a dinosaur or Godzilla.

  8. We have these “grandma” huge snappers in our pond behind our house. Pretty soon we’ll be seeing them mating and rolling around in there.

    They are not 40 inches long. Buts our big ones have a carapace length I would estimate at 20 inches or maybe a bit more. They are huge. But very slow moving, especially on land.

    Here’s a photo of me with one from a few years ago. Those are Size 13 shoes on me (I’m 6′-5″ tall).

  9. I’ve seen even bigger snappers though perhaps that one is larger because it’s hard to see from context. I like the way it’s eyeing the camera as if to say, “Look, I’ve got a big day ahead of me but if you want to come closer, I don’t mind tasting your ankle”.

  10. Thanks for sharing the snapping turtle photos and the commentary. I’ve only seen photos of alligator snappers…I would love to see one in person.

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