“Turtles were around before dinosaurs, and they watched them emerge, prosper, and disappear altogether. Without changing their body plan at all, turtles further observed the rise of birds and mammals. They are still here today, waiting to see what happens to us.” —Thomas F. Tyning, “Stokes Nature Guide to Amphibians and Reptiles.”
It is turtle egg-laying season, and our female reptilian friends are traveling from the safety of their watery homes to find sunny locations in well-drained soil to lay their eggs. I have encountered these amazing animals many times, both in the water and on land. This past week I found a snapping turtle busy digging her egg nest in the sand along the side of a back country road. I decided to stop and observe the show that occurs only once a year.
Her shell carapace (upper shell) was about 10 inches in length, and though her tail is long, it was completely covered by the soil and sand she had excavated with her powerful hind feet and claws. Her hind section was in the hole, and she was slightly raised on her front legs, and did not move when I approached to get a photo. I snapped a few pictures and then backed off to let her lay her eggs in peace.
I walked along the side of the road and noticed several other locations where the turtle had started to dig but abandoned the effort and had moved a foot or two further down the road to try again. Perhaps there was hard-packed gravel or fill just below the sand, and she was looking for better digging before getting to her business at hand. I can’t confirm the turtle I saw had started those other holes, but it seems likely. At least two of the holes located closest to the turtle were filled in, suggesting eggs were just below the surface.
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If you’re looking for information on a specific species like snapping turtles, a good place to start is the Connecticut Department of Energy and Environmental Protection (CT DEEP) Fact Sheets. Here is a link to the page on snapping turtles: https://portal.ct.gov/DEEP/Wildlife/Fact-Sheets/Common-Snapping-Turtle and here are some key bits of information.
- Snapping turtles are Connecticut’s largest freshwater turtle and can be recognized by their dark carapace with deeply serrated back margins. They have a small plastron (bottom shell) that does not cover all their flesh. The top shell measures 8-12 inches on an average adult. Snapping turtles can weigh between 10-35 pounds.
- Snapping turtles have long tails, often measuring as long as or longer than the carapace and covered with bony plates. They also have a large head, long neck, and a sharp, hooked upper jaw. This hard beak has a rough cutting edge that is used for tearing food.
- Snapping turtles are omnivores with one-third of their diet made up of plants. The rest is prey such as insects, spiders, worms, fish, frogs, small turtles, snakes, birds, crayfish, small mammals and carrion. Snapping turtles often hang motionless in the water and ambush their prey by lunging forward with the head at high speed, seizing prey with powerful jaws.
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- The nesting season in The Last Green Valley occurs in late May through June. This is one of the rare times snapping turtles will leave their aquatic habitat. The females travel great distances in search of a place to dig a nest and lay eggs.
- To lay a clutch of eggs, the female uses her powerful hind legs to dig a shallow bowl-shaped nest in a well-drained, sunny location. She lays between 20 and 40 creamy white, ping-pong ball-sized eggs over a period of several hours. The female then covers the eggs and returns to the water, leaving the eggs and hatchlings to fend for themselves. Turtle nests are often preyed upon by raccoons, skunks and crows. As many as 90 percent of the nests are destroyed by predators each year.
- The eggs will hatch in 80 to 90 days, but the hatch date can vary depending on temperature and other environmental conditions. Hatchlings can emerge from their leathery egg anywhere from August to October by using a small egg tooth to break open the shell. When the young hatch, they dig out of the nest and instinctively head to water. Hatchlings are about an inch long with soft shells, again making them easy prey before they reach the water.
- The aggressive reputation snapping turtles have stems from their behavior during breeding season, one of the few times they encounter humans. Docile in the water, they are more aggressive on land and should be treated with respect if encountered. Snapping turtles have powerful, sharp jaws. Keep children and pets away from the turtle, allowing it time to lay its eggs and leave the area.
- Unlike most other turtles, snapping turtles rarely bask on land, but instead bask on the water’s surface. They survive winters in the Heritage Corridor by burrowing into mud and leaf debris in shallow water, under logs or below overhanging banks when temperatures dip below 41°F. After emerging from hibernation, turtles begin feeding and searching for mates. Snapping turtles can live up to 40 years or more.
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What to do if you see a snapping turtle crossing the road
This time of year, I see several emails and social media posts on what to do if you encounter a turtle crossing the road. Due to their potential size (compared to other turtle species) and tendency for aggression on land, snapping turtles seem to be the turtle most discussed. I have stopped many times (when it is safe to do so) and helped painted, spotted and snapping turtles cross a road. It is important to always move it in the direction it was headed, and to not pick it up by the tail, which can seriously hurt the animal.
Snapping turtles require more care, and I found some interesting sources of information including a video from the Toronto Zoo demonstrating moving a large a snapping turtle across the road: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=nY6wUAv4CSQ
Locally we have an organization that assists and rehabilitates turtles that have been injured – frequently those that are hit on the road by vehicles. I have met the founders of The Turtle Rescue League of Southbridge and seen their bright green turtle mobile on our roadways.
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“Every year, we admit hundreds of injured or sick native turtles. We work tirelessly to provide medical treatment and prepare them for release back into their homes in the wild. Additionally, we incubate eggs recovered from dangerous locations or departed mothers. By ushering healthy hatchlings into the wetlands, we are able to preserve their mother’s legacy and carry forth the next generation of turtles.” Find the League at https://turtlerescueleague.org/.
The Turtle Rescue League website has a helpful section on turtle emergencies with a section “I Found a Turtle in the Road” with tips for helping it across the road, and how to tell if it is injured. The direct link is https://turtlerescueleague.org/emergencies/turtle-in-road/.
Thankfully, the turtle I encountered last week was able to complete her important task safely. I watched from the road and sat in my car keeping an eye on her. She must have been well on her way to depositing all her eggs since it was only 10 minutes or so before she was moving her hind feet to fill the nest hole. Near her nest is a muddy, slow and meandering brook from where she had likely emerged. I walked back to the turtle in time to see her slip into the thick grass between the road and the water. From the ripples I knew she made it into the water to return to life in her watery home. I frequent that road and will stop from time to time this summer to check on the nests and look for clues the eggs are safe and successfully hatched.
We live in a beautiful place called The Last Green Valley National Heritage Corridor. Our home is rich in cultural and natural resources. I hope you will join me and together let us enjoy them, care for them, and pass them on.
Bill Reid is the Chief Ranger of The Last Green Valley National Heritage Corridor. He can be reached at 860-774-3300 or [email protected]