Today’s post comes from David LeGros, Natural Heritage Education Specialist at Algonquin Provincial Park.
I spent most of my youth wearing rubber boots and obsessed with nature. I was always looking for interesting animals and plants.
There are some creatures then, as now, that always inspire me.
Top of my list: the snapping turtle.
The size of the snapper
Seriously, how can you not be impressed? This huge reptile has a huge dark shell covered in algae, a long, pointed dinosaur tail, legs the size of your hands, and a long neck with a large head that can attack a threat or food at lightning speed.
The physical presence of a large snapper is truly impressive. However, if this is the only reason we are impressed by one, we are simply judging a book by its cover.
Once, from a remote campsite in the countryside, I was able to see a huge male snapper swimming by; She was like an aquatic dancer in armor, so graceful and weightless.
It was hard to imagine what this turtle could have seen in his life. Perhaps he was present at the establishment of Algonquin Provincial Park in 1893. Since then, he has watched loggers pushing white pines down the river, celebrated Canada’s centennial, and completely ignored the rise of the Biebs.
I used to be captivated by snappers, but after this sighting, I became a passionate turtle advocate.
First things first: we have to get over the center of the center.
Unlike most turtles, which have a hard, protective upper and lower shell (carapace and plastron), the snapper has a normal upper shell, but only a tiny lower shell, which leaves its fleshy legs exposed. That’s why when you encounter most other turtles on land, they retreat to the protection of their shell.
The snappers will hold their ground and may bite in your direction. The best thing you can do is leave them alone. Turtles are not very fast when they are out of water and feel more vulnerable there than anywhere else.
Big snappers are survivors
It takes a snapping turtle a long time to reach adulthood, about 20 years. They continue to grow slowly throughout their lives and can have a shell length of more than 30 cm. Some will even reach 40cm+!
Snapping turtles can weigh up to 20kg, which is really huge. At this size, the turtle could be very old, perhaps more than 100 years old.
Unlike many other turtle species, male snappers are larger than females. This is because males fight over females, and the larger you are, the more powerful the rival.
A mother snapper carefully chooses her nest
Some female snapping turtles can travel up to 8 km (one way) to find a suitable nesting location. They swim through lakes or rivers, and even face dangers when traveling over land.
At the nesting site, usually a sunny, sandy spot, it digs a hole with its hind legs (all without looking!) and lays 20 to 40 eggs in the moist sand. After you bury them, it will be over. The sun heats the sand and incubates them.
Don’t hold your breath!
When you live in water, you will eventually have to hold your breath. A snapping turtle is a champion at this skill.
As a cold-blooded reptile, its metabolism is already low, so its oxygen needs are much lower than those of a mammal of the same size. This means you can hold your breath for quite a long time, more than 10 minutes.
In winter, turtles hibernate under the ice, meaning they cannot access the surface to breathe.
What happens then?
Well, as the temperature drops, so does the turtle’s need for oxygen. Find a spot on the bottom of the lake or pond, perhaps wedged between rocks or logs, or on an undercut bank. Here it spends the winter without breathing, which can last up to six months!
He has a secret weapon: his butt. Drink small amounts of water through your sewer (turtle’s butt), can absorb some oxygen from the water and release carbon dioxide in this way.
The turtles need your help!
Turtles do need to go from one place to another to nest, find food, a mate, or a place to hibernate. Sometimes they cross a street.
Despite all their ingenious adaptations, they don’t know how to look both ways before crossing a street. Besides that, maybe it wouldn’t help if they did; They are slow moving. Many are hit by cars each year in Ontario, even in protected places like provincial parks.
If you see one crossing the street, you can help it in the following ways:
- Carefully pick up the back of the shell (never the tail) and move it along the road.
- Watching him and making sure he crosses safely on a quiet road.
- Put it in a box, tub or on a blanket and drag it down the road.
Always make sure the path is clear and safe to do so. You don’t want to end up run over. Always carry it in the direction you were traveling; They know where they are going.
A snapping turtle nesting on the shore or passing by a campground is an incredible wild animal encounter. Their unique adaptations, enormous size, and long life make them one of the most surprising creatures in our landscapes.
I feel they are an iconic creature of our wild places and serve as a reminder of a time gone by and an inspiration to protect nature in the long term.