The Wild Truth
By Jen Knight
The prehistoric predator, Chelydra serpentina, heaves itself from the depths and clambers with surprising speed across the lakeshore, clearing rocks and even chain-link fencing with single-minded determination to reach its goal: a nearby suburban homestead. Is this the start of a nail-biting sequence from the latest Jurassic Park reboot? A Lovecraftian sci-fi horror scene? It is in fact, a much gentler genre—a common snapping turtle’s odyssey of maternal drive and protection.
May marks the beginning of snapping turtle nesting season here in the mountains and many residents are caught unawares by the sight of these robust reptiles in their yards and neighborhoods. Despite their aquatic lifestyles, “females actually lay their eggs in nests on land, sometimes as far as several hundred meters away from the water,” according to Sam McCoy, a Mountain Reptiles Wildlife Diversity Technician with the NC Wildlife Resources Commission. “It’s not uncommon to encounter a snapping turtle trying to cross the road.”
However, there is no need for alarm as snappers do not hunt on land while nesting. They will hiss and, as their name implies, snap if disturbed, but pose no threat to pets or kids if left alone. If you are one of the fortunate few to host a snapper nest, enjoy the show! Once a mother turtle identifies a satisfactory nesting site, she’ll dig a nest, deposit and cover her eggs, then be on her way in about an hour and half. As with most reptiles, the eggs are left unguarded. Locally, eggs typically hatch between August and September and the nestlings make the perilous journey towards water on their own.
This incredible cycle has been going on for millennia. “The ancestors of snapping turtles date back to the late Cretaceous,” more than 65 million years ago, says McCoy. While ancient snappers were globally distributed, the only surviving species are the common snapping turtle, found throughout North America, and the much larger alligator snapping turtle, Macrochelys temminckii, found in the southeastern US.
Here in WNC you can only expect to find the common snapper, easily distinguished from other local turtles by its heavy shell with three prominent ridges terminating in a distinctive serrated margin. The lower shell, or plastron, is comparatively small among turtles and prevents snappers from hiding inside their shells when threatened. To make up for it, their blocky head sports a sharp beak and powerful jaws which they use to deter predators and hunt.
Although they put on a good defensive show, these omnivores are not aggressive towards swimmers and much prefer to scavenge the bottoms of slow-moving bodies of water for dead fish and plant matter. In fact, they have been described as the “garbage disposals” of freshwater ecosystems and play an important role in keeping lakes and rivers clean.
Inspired to help these Cretaceous cuties? Consider putting some temporary gap fencing around nests in your yard, but check them daily come August and always scan the yard before mowing. Never put yourself at risk to help an animal in the road, but if you’re able to assist be sure to watch your fingers! “Their necks are so long that they can bite you if you put your hands anywhere except on their upper shell near the tail,” McCoy says. “It’s probably safest to push it from behind with a stick or broom.”
Jen Knight serves on the development committee of the Appalachian Wildlife Refuge (AppalachianWild.org) and is the co-education director and senior naturalist at the Balsam Mountain Trust (BalsamMountainTrust.org).