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Snapping Turtle Care Sheet

Scientific Facts

Common Name:Snapping Turtle, common snapping turtle
Scientific Name:Chelydra serpentina
Life Span:In captivity – 100+ years, in the wild – unknown
Size:11.2 inches in size, 4.5 to 16 kg in weight
Habitat:Shallow ponds, streams, brackish environments like estuaries 
Country of Origin:Southeastern Canada, Nova Scotia, and Florida

Physical Description

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The snapping turtle is a large turtle that lives in bodies of fresh water. It is from the family Chelydridae, which is native in areas along southeastern Canada, to the southwestern edge of the Rocky Mountains and Nova Scotia and Florida to the east.  

The name “snapping turtle” was derived from the turtle’s defensive or combative attitude when it is out of the water. It has very powerful jaws that it uses to bite when it feels threatened. This turtle has a beak-like jaw, mobile head, and neck that it uses to easily snap towards the threat. When in water, snapping turtles don’t attack but rather flee from its perceived threat. These turtles will simply swim away and hide under sediment.

There are numerous concerns regarding the snapping turtle’s life history. First, it has a high and variable mortality of its embryos and hatchlings, which massively affects its population in the wild. This turtle species have delayed sexual maturity, prolonged longevity, and repeated reproductive problems with low success rates in reproduction. 

Females and some males found in northern areas mature much later in life at around 15 to 20 years of age. The snapping turtle is one of the most resilient turtle species and is known to live for more than 100 years in captivity. Records of the lifespan of snapping turtles in the wild remain unknown.

Snapping turtles are large turtles with a rugged and muscular appearance. It comes with a rigid shell, and these ridges are more pronounced in younger turtles. The upper shell measures nearly 20 inches, although 18.5 inches is the average. 

Snapping turtles will weigh around 9.9 to 35 pounds. Males are larger compared to females. A snapping turtle grows throughout its life, and usually, males grow larger and heavier. Any specimen that has more than the expected length and weight is exceptional species. Usually, snapping turtles kept in captivity are overweight because of overfeeding and weigh more than 86 pounds. Snapping turtles found in the northernmost range are usually the heaviest of all the species.

Morphology

The snapping turtle has a carapace with a flattened appearance and 3 keels that will eventually become smoother as the turtle ages. The posterior portion of the carapace is serrated with 4 marginals found on each side of the pointed midline. It has a hingeless plastron that’s short and narrow. 2 narrow bridges form a cross. There are plastral bridges that connect the carapace using a ligament.

Color and patterns

The snapping turtle has a brown carapace with a cream plastron and bridge. Varying black spots are seen encrusted on the surface of the skin. The color of the head, neck, arms, and legs are dark brown while some turtles have black color. The turtle’s head is huge with a blunt nose or snout. The nose protrudes slightly, and the upper jaw is hooked. The neck is muscular and long, with around one-half of the body of the snapping turtle. 

This turtle has muscular limbs with very long claws and webbed feet. The tail is long, which can be as long as the carapace. On top of the turtle are several tubercles which it can use to defend itself from predators. 

Adult males are larger compared to females throughout their lifetime. The plastrons of some males are slightly concave in shape, while the distances from the tail to the cloaca may vary in gender as well. Also, males have larger heads than females.   

Life Span

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Snapping Turtle can reach a century or more in captivity. Snapping Turtle has three stages of development: hatchlings, juveniles, and adults 

Hatchlings

Hatchlings are very small but may already have similarities to their parents like the pointed nose, long necks and tails, and a large head. The feet are webbed, and this allows baby turtles to dig out of their shells. The top shell, belly, and skin of hatchlings are black when it has just hatched from the egg. There are also white marks found on the lateral margins and at the margin of the plastron. 

Hatchlings come out of their eggs, ready to walk, eat, and hunt for food. These may be able to move in freshwater in just a matter of days.

Juveniles

Juvenile snapping turtles look almost the same as adult turtles, especially with the morphology and color patterns. In juveniles, the tubercles located on the dorsum of the tail grow with age. Usually, the snapping turtle is similar to freshwater species in Virginia. The well-known wood turtles have a large mid-dorsal keep and a huge plastron during their juvenile stages.  

Juvenile turtles are able to hunt, eat, and show behaviors similar to adults except for reproduction. Juveniles are more active and are mostly found in shallow freshwater areas looking for food. 

Adults

Females and some males mature later at 15 to 20 years while larger turtles mature in 12 years. Adults snappers are at the peak of the food chain, which sometimes makes them feel less fear and aggression. 

Eating Habits

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Snapping Turtles are voracious eaters. These will eat anything that is smaller than them and larger animals, but they can subdue. These turtles forage day or night, and they are known to eat different kinds of food, including crayfish, diving beetles, catfish, flies, toads, tree frogs, muskrats, aquatic macrophytes, algae, and duckweed.

Adult and juvenile snappers are known to eat algae and duckweed found floating on the surface of the water. Adult snapping turtles have only a few predators, and humans are the most common. Mammals like raccoons are another common predator with raccoons digging the turtle’s nest and even digging adults from the water and biting them from the back. Birds of prey like the bald eagle also eat the snapping turtle and leave their shells behind to line their nests. Meanwhile, small juveniles are prey to more animals like large wading birds, snakes, and large fish.

The eggs of the snapping turtle are also dug and eaten by foxes, skunks, and raccoons. Leeches are common pests that feed on the blood of snapping turtles. Species that are native to Virginia carry leeches and can be found attached to the skin and even on the shells of adult snappers. 

Large and older males don’t have natural threats because of their large size and their natural defenses. These have a very low mortality rate. These turtles also move over large areas on land to reach different habitats to lay their eggs. 

The natural habitats of snapping turtles are threatened due to pollution, food scarcity, habitat destruction, overcrowding, and many other factors. Usually, these turtles move from one water source to another.  

There is research that supports the possibility that snapping turtles can feel the magnetic field of the earth. This data may be used to determine the movement of snapping turtles as they reach new water sources. 

Conservation 

Snapping turtles are classified as Least Concern by the IUCN. But despite this, the population of snapping turtles have declined due to the pet trade and because of habitat destruction. Canada and several states in the US are creating new rules for stricter conservation of the species. The common snapping turtle is listed under “Special Concern” in the Species at Risk Act of 2011. 

The snapping turtle is an ingredient in turtle soup. But eating large amounts can be a health concern since toxic pollutants may accumulate in the flesh.

Sleeping Habits

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A snapping turtle will forage day and night and thus will sleep in between activities, whether daytime or nighttime. Usually, after eating, these turtles will find a comfortable spot to rest. Turtles found in temperate climates brumate rather than hibernate. Brumation is when the animal remains still or dormant. Turtles shut down to conserve energy, and sometimes these animals won’t even respond to regular stimuli such as prodding or even poking. Usually, after brumation comes the breeding season. 

Water

Snapping Turtles can live on land and in shallow freshwater where aquatic plants like duckweed and algae are found. These may use plants or areas near water as shelter. The common habitats of snappers are shallow ponds and streams, while estuaries are also common places where they stay. Snapping turtles may bask by floating along the surface of the water, with only their shells exposed. You may also find them basking on logs.

In shallow freshwater areas, snapping turtles may stay under the muddy bottom, and only the tip of the snout is seen. These turtles may stretch their long necks to the water surface to get some air.   

If you were to keep a Snapping Turtle in captivity, consider an outdoor enclosure with a small pond. Place water plants in the pond so that your turtle/s can feed on these plants. If you can’t place your turtle outdoors, create a large indoor enclosure with a water feature. The pond should be big and deep enough for the turtle to swim in. 

Regular maintenance of the pool water is needed because this is where the turtle eats, defecates, and urinates. Compared to natural murky ponds, a smaller water feature can easily become toxic to a captive turtle, and this can cause problems to its health. 

Development, Reproduction, and Breeding

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Common snapping turtles will breed from April to November; their peak egg-laying months are from June to July. 

Snapping turtles mate by using a variety of positions.  The most common is the plastron to the plastron position and the carapace to the plastron position. Usually, mating is forced by the male, which is usually larger and stronger than females.  

Females will hold sperm inside their bodies for many reasons and uses this when she feels necessary. Females move overland to look for sandy soil where she will deposit her eggs. The nest is usually found in some distance from the water source. 

The female snapping turtle will dig a nest using her limbs. This species of the turtle will use different types of soil to make her nest. When the hole is ready, she will then deposit 25 to 30 flask-shaped eggs. These will hatch around 55 to 125 days later and sometimes earlier or much later, depending on the environmental conditions.  

In captivity, snapping turtle eggs can incubate from 74 to 80 days. Hatchlings that have umbilical scars and some with external yolks may be common. There are also snapping turtle species that overwinter in the nest with hatchlings emerging from their eggs around late April to May. 

How to Breed

Breeding in captivity is tricky and sometimes fruitless. Careful conditions must be considered when breeding snapping turtles in captivity, and this includes environmental temperatures, the area where the turtle may remain when in brumation, and many more.

To breed snapping turtles in captivity, successful breeders stimulate brumation periods by slowly lowering the environmental temperatures week after week until a stable cooler temperature is achieved. 

Male and female turtles are kept separately, and a safe area is prepared where turtles can remain during brumation. After this period, the male and female turtles will emerge ready to mate and hungry. 

Introducing the male and female for the first time should be done cautiously. The male is usually aggressive and will force itself to the female. If it starts to become too aggressive, separate the two. Be careful not to bet snapped at though because the male may turn his aggression on his breeder. 

Mating can happen fast, or it may take hours or days, and this happens in water. The male may try one or many mating positions. Only when the mating is successful will the two separate. The male will deposit sperm inside the female, and as mentioned, the female can keep then sperm inside her for a long time and may use these when necessary.  

After successfully mating, separate the two and place the female in a cage or enclosure with soft, moist soil. After many weeks, she will be ready to lay her eggs and will soon dig a nest for her eggs in the soil. You will notice that the female is frantic, may not feed or refuse to eat, and may remain under the reptile tank light for a longer time when she is ready to lay her eggs. She will then use her long claws to dig for the nest, pushing the earth to the left or right. When she thinks that the ground is deep enough, she will now position herself directly on top of the nest and lay her eggs.

It can take her all night or all day to lay her eggs sometimes in a state of trance. She won’t rest until she has deposited all her eggs. Afterward, she will cover the nest using her claws again, but this time pushing sand, dirt, or mud to fill the nest. She will now rest and eat to replenish lost nutrients and energy while laying her eggs. 

Breeders collect the eggs and place these in individual containers and incubated them in the ideal temperatures. The position of the eggs when they were found in their mother’s nest should be maintained even while transferring these in artificial incubators. Turning the eggs or placing these in incorrect positions can smother the baby inside the egg leading to death.

The eggs will hatch after 80 days, and sometimes hatchlings will stay inside the egg for a few more days. You can place the hatchlings in a large enclosure once they start to leave their eggs.

Breeding snapping turtles take expert skill, knowledge, and a bit of luck since these are very sensitive creatures. Breeding can become successful when all the factors are considered, including environmental conditions that are perfect for breeding.  

Common Health Problems

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Snapping Turtle may occasionally suffer from health conditions. If you’re taking care of a snapping turtle, keep in mind that any health concerns should be consulted to a vet who specializes in reptile care. 

Respiratory Infections 

Snapping Turtles may have respiratory conditions due to bacteria and vitamin A deficiency. Signs of respiratory problems include open-mouth breathing, wheezing, lack of appetite, and lack of energy. Discharge from the nose is a sign that it needs medical treatment right away.

Shell Problems

Another common condition is shell problems and is usually due to bacterial or viral infections and fungi. It’s hard to tell if a snapping turtle’s shell is healthy or not because of its rugged and dirty appearance, so you need to carefully check this out closely. When shell problems are overlooked, these can crack and fracture. 

Females may suffer from shell problems after aggressive mating. Males can latch themselves onto the female’s back plastron to carapace during mating, and this may lead to shell conditions. Inspect for physical injuries such as bleeding, abscess, and poor healing if the injury happened many weeks or months ago. Poor healing is a sign of a bacterial infection or fungi. 

Abscesses

Abscesses are swelling or any tumor-like growth on any part of the snapping turtle’s body. The most common sites in larger turtles are the eyes and the opening of the ear. Most of the time, vitamin A deficiency causes abscesses, and therefore, you must include vitamin A-rich foods and supplements in the turtle’s diet.

Vitamin A Deficiency

Vitamin A deficiency results in skin changes, lack of appetite, swelling of the eye and lids, swelling of the ears, respiratory problems, and lethargy. Combat these by feeding your turtle a vitamin A-rich diet or provide supplements. 

Parasites 

Diarrhea and weight loss could be due to parasites in the gut. Roundworms are the most common in turtles, and this must be treated as soon as possible. Usually, turtles don’t show any symptoms until it’s too late. A vet will recommend medications to kill parasites. Cleaning the tank regularly can help reduce the spread of parasites inside the snapping turtle’s enclosure.

Turtle injuries 

Snapping Turtles can be prone to many kinds of accidents as it moves inside its enclosure. It may fall and break its shell, and bacteria can affect the wound, causing an infection and poor healing. For any injury, take the turtle to the vet at once. 

If there are injuries on the eyes, nose, or the head and there is bleeding, visit the vet immediately. If there is vomiting, loose stools, or blood in stools, take your pet to the vet to prevent dehydration, loss of blood, and other metabolic problems. 

If there are injuries on its skin, head, shell, or eyes, take your turtle to the vet. Wash wounds in clean water and apply disinfectant. Cover it with a sterile gauze or bandage and keep the turtle in a dry enclosure to allow the wound to heal better.

Preventing Illness

Snapping turtles are known to be very hardy animals in the wild, and most of the time, these are in good health, eating happily and looking for food. But when kept inside an enclosure, it’s natural environment changes as the small tank is it’s home. This is why breeders and handlers should create a bigger enclosure and make sure that it’s clean and well-maintained.

Change the water inside the tank once every week. Use a powerful water filter to efficiently clean the water in the tank. Remember to change the filter often. Tank water may be tap water or well water provided it should be kept still for a day before the turtle is introduced. 

To clean the tank walls and floor, use a powerful disinfectant and warm water. Remove any food remnants in the tank as well as poop; use a net to remove dirt as soon as you see them. For this tank, you don’t need to use sediment, but if you wish, you can use heavy sand, pebbles, or aquarium sand. 

Take the turtle to the vet for regular checkups. Do this more often when the turtles are in their hatchling phase. Always maintain the best temperature inside the tank to prevent illness because of incorrect temperature and humidity. Monitor the temperature, humidity, and water quality inside the tank.  

Behavior

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To fully care for your Snapping Turtle, you must understand its behaviors. Here are the most common:

Striking behavior

Snapping turtles can strike out in a repeated manner when threatened. It can also force air from the lungs as it moves its head outwards. The turtle’s head is thrust forward and upward and even over the back of its shell.

The neck is long, but the striking distance is one half to around two-thirds of the shell’s length. So a full shell-length is the safest distance from a snapping turtle. Keep in mind that a snapping turtle may move towards you, so it’s still possible for it to strike again. 

Severe bite

Snapping turtles will bite, and the bite is severe. A study published in the Journal of Evolutionary Biology has revealed that common snapping turtles have a severe bite that registered from 208 to 226 Newtons of force in jaw strength. The alligator snapping turtle may bite off the fingers of a human hand, and this has been proven as three cases have been documented. 

Very sharp claws

The claws of a snapping turtle are as sharp as the claws of a dog, but these cannot be trimmed. The turtle uses its claws not to attack and not for eating but only for gripping and digging.

Musking

Snapping turtles may release a strong odor coming from its legs when they feel stressed or threatened. Usually, this is the last resort to avoid confrontations. Don’t pick the turtle up from its tail because it will usually musk you. 

Hissing

Snapping turtles may release air from its neck as a form of hissing. The turtle will also do this when it feels threatened, along with musking and snapping. 

Less defensive when in water

Snapping turtles are calmer underwater. Swimmers may bump into them underwater, and these turtles will simply swim away or hide under the marshes. And because of their calmer behaviors underwater, collectors try to feel them with their hands in water to capture them. 

Large males can kill smaller males

Sometimes large adult males can be very aggressive to the point of killing smaller males. This has been noted in the wild and snappers in captivity. It’s best to keep large snappers in separate enclosures to avoid aggression. 

Will travel to other sites

Snapping turtles may travel overland to go to a new habitat. Females may also do this to lay her eggs. Usually, factors like habitat destruction, pollution, food scarcity, and overcrowding can make snappers search for a few homes. Usually, these turtles move from one water source to another nearby body of freshwater.

Curious turtles

Underwater, snapping turtles can be very curious and can use their noses to poke humans. Their docile behavior in water allows them to move undetected underwater and so they are able to move through swimmers and boats to curiously check out the human activity.

Cold-tolerant

The common snapping turtle can resist the bitter cold; therefore, these don’t hibernate. In some studies, hatchlings overwinter in their nests, but as these grow older, these will remain active even when temperatures drop.

Extra-pulmonary respiration

Snapping turtles can get oxygen through pushing their heads out from the mud and permitting the gas exchange to happen through the mouth and throat. If they are unable to get oxygen from this means, these turtles will use anaerobic respiration by burning sugar and fat without the need for oxygen. The waste products of extra-pulmonary respiration are acids that can cause health problems during spring.

Habitat

Snapping turtles may live in all aquatic systems such as ponds, streams, lakes, rivers, swamps, brackish marshes, and so on. Any kind of area that provides lush aquatic vegetation and a good cover would be perfect for a snapping turtle. These turtles bask sporadically. Snapping turtles may be in the water in any month of the year. Snapping turtles come up on land to nest and to forage for food, but they would happily return to the water as soon as they are done.

Lighting 

To keep a snapping turtle indoors, a full-spectrum UV lamp and a basking heating lamp inside the turtle’s enclosure are a must. For outdoor enclosures, there’s no need to use a lamp or lighting since natural sunlight will suffice.

Temperature

The turtle’s indoor enclosure must be well heated. Use a reliable lamp to maintain the temperature inside the tank. Monitor tank temperature and humidity always. Always keep the turtle tank clean and at the right temperature, especially when the temperature drops.   

Filtration

Use a reliable filter that will continuously clean tank water. The tank water can also easily become dirty if you have more than one turtle. A battery-powered backup filtration unit is a good idea in case of power outages. Consider spot cleaning the water inside the enclosure because Snapping Turtles can poop in the water. Use a net to remove any dirt. Outdoor enclosures and water features should also be cleaned constantly with a water filter used to clean an artificial pond.

Tank Accessories

Keep the turtle enclosure simple and clean. Avoid décor that can cause injury. A snapping turtle enclosure only needs water, soil, sand, and a few rocks where the turtle can remain. When breeding snapping turtles, females with eggs need more loose soil inside the tank or enclosure. This will help her lay her eggs. Avoid anything that can fall on your pet or anything that can tangle or electrocute it. 

Sanitation

Keep the tank clean to prevent parasites. Remember, turtles can spread Salmonella, dangerous bacteria, which can cause diarrhea, vomiting, stomach pains, and other dangerous symptoms in humans. Maintain the tank regularly, especially if you have more than one turtle. 

Use a disinfectant to clean the tank. Use warm water to rinse the tank. For an outdoor enclosure, brush the floors and walls and rinse these well using a hose or power sprayer. Wash your hands or wear protective gear when cleaning a snapping turtle’s enclosure. 

Availability – Where to Get One?

Snapping Turtle is available in exotic pet shops and pet stores, but we recommend not to get one as a pet to discourage illegal pet trade. Snapping Turtles hatchlings are sold around $300 depending on the gender. 

How to Care for a Snapping Turtle?

Here are some tips on how to care for a snapping turtle:

  • When handling Snapping Turtle, wash your hands to prevent the spread of Salmonella and other diseases. Snapping Turtles may be affected by parasites, so don’t spread it to your other pets. 
  • Snapping Turtles do not want to be handled and would be happy just to leave them alone. But at some point, you will need to hold them, especially when you need to take it to the vet. 
  • Snapping Turtles may be allowed to roam the yard or outdoors as long as you protect it from its predators. You must also keep smaller animals and pets away since the turtle may likely snap them or bite them. 
  • Monitor the temperature of the enclosure. Keep the turtle tank’s temperature at the best levels by using a bright light or reptile lamp in case of no sunlight. 
  • Keep your turtle healthy by taking it to a reptile specialist regularly. Do this more often when the turtle is sick or recovering from an illness.  
  • Monitor your pet for any problems such as breathing problems and shell conditions. If you have a new turtle, don’t immediately place it inside the tank or enclosure. Place it under quarantine to rule out any diseases for a few weeks before you allow it to join your turtles.
  • Feed your snapping turtle the right kind of food. This will avoid deficiencies and infections. Consult a reptile vet for the ideal type of food according to your turtle’s developmental stage.

FAQ Section

Are snapping turtles dangerous?

Snapping turtles are dangerous, especially on land. They have the potential to bite and scratch. Their bites are known to be very vicious and can even tear the flesh of a hand.  

Can a snapping turtle bite your finger off?

Common snapping turtles can inflict a very painful bite, but contrary to popular belief, the bite is not strong enough to tear a finger off a hand. Only the alligator snapping turtle can cause such severe damage.

How strong is the bite of a snapping turtle?

The jaw strength of a snapping turtle is registered as 208 to 226 Newtons of force. Compared to humans with a bite force of 300 to 700 Newtons, snapping turtles may not be much of a bitter after all.

Can a snapping turtle run fast?

Snapping turtles cannot run fast, but their head and neck can quickly spring up and out of the shell to bite threats. The structure of their legs makes them unable to run fast. 

Is a snapping turtle poisonous?

No, a snapping turtle is not poisonous. It may inflict a strong bite, but it won’t deliver any poison. 

Will a snapping turtle attack swimming people?

No, snapping turtles will usually swim away from people. These won’t attack when in water and will simply remain undetected in water. 

Does a snapping turtle make a sound?

Large turtles like the snapping turtle can make a hissing sound, which is a loud sound coming from its neck as it stretches outwards and upwards to bite. This sound is made when the turtle is threatened.

Can you eat a snapping turtle?

Snapping turtles are ingredients in turtle soup, but eating turtles caught in polluted or stagnant waters may contain toxins and pollutants in their meat, so this is not recommended.  

What does a snapping turtle taste like?

Some people say that it tastes like a chicken, while some say that it tastes like a duck. But nevertheless, eating turtle meat may contain toxins.

How do you catch a snapping turtle?

To catch a snapping turtle, set a trap in the pond and wait for it to visit the trap and catch with a large net. You can also feel them underwater and grab the turtle from the back shell.

Can you relocate a snapping turtle?

Yes, you can help turtles relocate by carrying them across roads or in the direction they want to go. Most turtles that relocate are females bearing eggs and, therefore, may need assistance. 

Do snapping turtles mate for life?

No, snapping turtles may mate with a new female year after year. 

Are snapping turtles territorial?

Some large males are territorial and may overpower smaller males to the point of killing them. Therefore, it’s best to place males, especially large males, separately from other male turtles. 

Can you place fishes or aquatic animals inside a snapping turtle’s enclosure?

Yes, you can place feeder fish, small crustaceans and tadpoles because the turtle can play with these or eat them.

How do you tell the age of a snapping turtle?

It’s hard to tell the age of a snapping turtle if you don’t know when it hatched. One way is to count the scutes from its carapace, which is similar to counting the rings of felled trees to know their age. 

How do you pick up a snapping turtle without hurting yourself? 

Approach the snapping turtle from behind, so it won’t see that you’re trying to pick it up. Hold the back of the shell with one hand on each side of the carapace. Afterward, lift the snapping turtle quickly from the ground to prevent injury. Lift it only a few inches from the ground to avoid injuries in case you drop the turtle.                       

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