Appreciating Common Snapping Turtles
Two kinds of snapping turtles occur in North America, and both of them can be found in Illinois. Alligator snappers, which most people will never see, are listed as endangered, and they inhabit only larger rivers and streams in the southern part of the state, the Mississippi, Ohio and Wabash Rivers, and tributaries directly connected to them. In fact, no wild alligator snapping turtle was documented in Illinois for the thirty years between 1984 and 2014, when scientists from the Illinois Natural History Survey discovered one.
(Ironically, as I reported in a commentary last year, they discovered a wild alligator snapper as they sought to relocate individuals they had translocated from other states as part of a multi-year program to reestablish alligator snapping turtles in Illinois. More on that project here in future.)
It’s only common snapping turtles, scientific name Chelydra serpentina, that residents of Illinois are likely to see, and it’s them I’d like to call attention to here. Common snappers can be found throughout the state, and their overall range includes the entire eastern two-thirds of the U.S. and corresponding parts of southern Canada.
The “common” part of Chelydra serpentina’s name is entirely appropriate. They can be numerous in suitable habitat, and suitable habitat for them includes lakes, ponds, and marshes, as well as rivers and smaller streams—just about any permanent body of water. And while we’re on the topic of names, “serpentina” fits well, too, given the common snapping turtle’s long, snake-like neck and it’s ability to strike in a flash.
Humans who wade or swim in waters where snapping turtles live have little reason to fear being bitten by them, because they strongly prefer to avoid us and they move with ease in water.
What do common snapping turtles really want to bite? Fish, of course. Or frogs, or snakes, or crayfish, or snails, or small mammals and waterfowl—really, they’re not picky, and they eat carrion as well as prey they dispatch themselves. Snapping turtles even include a fair amount of plant material in their diet.
On land, snapping turtles respond to humans and other threats more aggressively, since they possess neither speed to escape nor the ability to retreat fully into their shell. But their strength to bite through objects people provoke them with is greater in stories than in reality.
You’re most likely to see snapping turtles on land in June, when females leave the water to find a site with loose soil or sand in which to lay eggs, up to 30 of them. Digging a hole and covering their eggs with soil is the extent of care female snappers provide, so few nests escape predation, and even hatchlings from successful nests face long odds of surviving.
When I see other kinds of turtles on a road I stop to pick them up and move them across in the direction they are headed, but it’s not a good idea to do that with large snappers. Better to give them space and just direct oncoming traffic around them, as long as it’s safe to do so.
Given the right vantage point, it’s also possible during summer to observe snapping turtles as they bask, usually by floating near the surface of the water with just their snout sticking out. In Champaign we’ve got a perfect spot for that, the overlook on the east side of the Second Street Basin. There are no guarantees in wildlife watching, but if you approach the railing there slowly and quietly on a sunny afternoon, you’ve got a good chance of spotting a basking snapper for yourself.