Written by Thaddeus Skarr (June 2024)

Turtles are a fixture of Nature At The Confluence (it’s called Turtle Creek for a reason). Several species are known to inhabit the waters of Turtle Creek, Kelly Creek, and the Rock River, including the colorful painted turtle (Chrysemys picta), the slippery spiny softshell turtle (Apalone spinifera), and the powerful common snapping turtle (Chelydra serpentina). However, most people only see turtles during warm months, perhaps chomping on duckweed in a pond or sunning themself on a fallen log near a creek. What does the rest of a turtle’s life look like?

Let’s focus in on the common snapping turtle. A large and hardy creature, it weights on average 20-30 pounds at maturity with a shell length of approximately 8-12 inches. However, these are averages – the exact lifespan of the common snapping turtle isn’t known, but they continue to grow throughout their entire life. Based on observational data, we know it’s at least possible for them to live more than a century in proper conditions. The largest known specimen as of writing is Big Snap Daddy, a 90+ year old turtle at the Schramm Education Center in Gretna, Nebraska. BSD happens to weigh in at a whopping 98 pounds, and he’s about as polite as you’d expect a nearly century old reptile to be – not very.

Big Snap Daddy in the very old, very scaly flesh. Image from Nebraskaland Magazine.

Prior to his entrance to the museum, what might life have looked like for this curmudgeonly fellow? Like many turtles, he started life at the bottom of the food chain – as a tiny hatchling no longer than your finger. He likely never met his mom. She would have laid eggs in a small hole and buried them several months ago, in May or June. Now it’s August, and this tiny critter is left to fend for himself, as are the rest of his 30-60 siblings. 

A freshly hatched common snapper. Picture from Maine Audobon

The first year of his life will be rough. In all likelihood, he’ll be scooped up for a snack by a predatory bird, scavenger, or just about anything that likes a nice crunch. If he manages to survive though, he’ll start heading downhill on instinct only, looking for the nearest source of water to submerge himself in. When they hatch in late summer, autumn is coming, and the next few months of his life will be in preparation for the harsh winter ahead. Common snapping turtles are, by nature, ambush hunters. But our friend here is still a bit small for that – instead, he’ll swim around whatever body of water he can find and look for tasty weeds, algae, worms, and small bugs. Soon enough, when winter rolls around, the turtle will go to the last place you might expect – underwater. Why would a turtle go there? It would be so cold and frigid, and the top of the water would freeze over, which is the last thing a turtle would want. Contrary to what you may think though, this is exactly why the turtle overwinters underwater.

When a sheet of ice forms on top of a pond, it makes a protective barrier, like an insulating wall. The water below it will be very cold, yes, but not frozen, and almost always warmer than the air above. That’s why common snapping turtles will take one big breath, and then scurry themselves away underwater for the entire winter. This can be up to six months straight in the colder areas where they live. This is similar to hibernation for mammals, but for reptiles, it’s called brumation. During this time, the turtle’s heart beat slows down, it doesn’t breathe, and it becomes very slow and sluggish. All of this is to conserve as much energy and oxygen as possible. If the turtle begins getting low on oxygen, he can open his mouth and absorb oxygen from the water, similarly to how our lungs work, but far less efficient.

A common snapping turtle entering its brumation period. Photo by Naturally Curious

When spring comes and the ice thaws, he’ll emerge and get back to work like nothing ever happened. He’ll spend spring, summer, and autumn doing nothing more than eating and sleeping. Eventually he’ll get large enough that he can hunt like an adult rather than gobbling up defenseless prey. They are excellently camouflaged for muddy creek bottoms with their dark coloration, and often the algae that grows on their shell that helps them blend in even better. Still, ambush hunting generally requires speed, which we don’t usually think of turtles having. You’d be surprised though. The common snapping turtle’s scientific species name, serpentina, gives a hint as to their strategy. This creature possesses an extraordinarily long neck. The common snapping turtle is able to, quite literally, snap up something in the blink of an eye, shooting its jaws out like a snake striking. Then, just as quickly as it attacks, it fades back into a small rocky crevice to appreciate its freshly caught dinner.

A common snapper swimming, showcasing its long neck and tail. From The Great Projects.

Once winter comes, the turtle will once again take a breath and dive to the bottom, where he will remain for another season. It repeats this cycle for over a decade before he’s ready to mate. When this time comes, he’ll find a female who is also ready to mate, and perform a small head-bobbing courtship dance. After this they’ll couple. When done, the male will swim off to find something to eat. Meanwhile, the female will spend some time looking for a proper nesting site. If she can’t find one that season, it’s no problem – the female can wait several years to lay her eggs, storing the male’s sperm until then. When she finds the perfect spot, she’ll begin digging out a shallow hole in a spot with some nice soft soil, ideally near water, but not necessarily. When it’s deep enough, she’ll turn around and back up into it, then lay up to 60 eggs. Each is around the size of a ping-pong ball, with a leathery white shell. Finally, mama turtle will cover the eggs up with soil again, and then go back to her life. In a few months, another generation of turtles will hatch, and the cycle begins anew.

As such noble and beautiful creatures, you might feel an urge to help one you see that could be in danger. This is understandable, and it can occasionally be an alright idea. If newborn hatchlings are trying to cross a road, you can carefully pick one up from each side of its shell and carry it to the other side – do not turn it around or change its direction, or it could get confused and lost. Importantly, this is only for babies. Any older and you shouldn’t touch them, even if you’re worried. An adult snapping turtle can use that long neck to reach around and bite your fingers, and are often too heavy to safely carry. If you are worried that an adult snapping turtle is in danger, call your local animal control number to have it safely removed from the hazard. When in doubt, noninterference is the best course of action.

Common snapping turtles are the largest reptile species in our region, and are an important part of freshwater ecosystems. However, despite still being fairly common to see, their numbers have dropped considerably due to habitat loss, pollution, and road collisions. Perhaps more widespread knowledge of these scaled beasts will help to protect them by fostering an appreciation for their existence. Even if they can be a bit old and grumpy.