Wednesday, June 10, 2009

Spring brings out the snapping turtle to lay eggs on land

Wednesday, June 10, 2009
Story and photos by STAN FREEMAN

In spring, a female turtle can be, well, a fish out of water.

Those that inhabit ponds, lakes and rivers are emerging from them early this month to lay their eggs on dry land.

And for one species, the common snapping turtle, it is the time of year when you're most likely to see this super-sized reptile. The rest of the year, this belligerent-looking animal is usually hunkered down in the mud underwater, feeding on whatever happens to pass by its considerably strong jaws.

The largest of Massachusetts' native turtles found inland (one caught in the state weighed 76 pounds), the snapping turtle appears almost prehistoric, like a leftover from the age of dinosaurs, with its craggy shell, sharp claws - and did I mention those jaws?

A lot of tall stories are told about snapping turtles, said Alan M. Richmond, a herpetologist at University of Massachusetts in Amherst.

"I got one e-mail from someone who saw one in Forge Pond in Granby and said it was the size of a Volkswagen Jetta. But usually they run 10 or so pounds, with the bigger ones going up to 35 pounds, with a (shell) length of up to 19.5 inches. So when you see people holding their arms all the way out and saying they saw one this big, I think they might be mistaken," he said.

How strong are their jaws? As adults, they have no natural predators. A large snapper could bite off a finger or toe. And on land, they can be aggressive, swiftly lunging and snapping at perceived threats. So they should be approached with great care.

"However, they're pretty timid in the water," Richmond said.

"Their normal tendency is to try and escape. If they're in the water, they want to get away from you. That's not to say that if you were trying to abuse one in the water, it wouldn't try and defend itself," he said.

Common snappers sexually mature at about 5 to 7 years, and they can live to about 40. A female snapper looking to lay eggs will usually seek out a nest site in an open area 100 yards or more from water. A shallow hole will be dug in soft sand or loam, or it might be excavated in vegetation debris or a sawdust pile, or a nest could be fashioned in a beaver or muskrat lodge. Typically, 20 to 40 golf-ball-sized eggs will be laid in a clutch.

"They are out laying eggs about now," Richmond said. "The young will emerge in late August or early September, but if environmental conditions aren't perfect, the little turtles will hatch and stay in the nest over the winter."

Interestingly, the gender of a baby snapper is determined not by genetics, but by the temperature of its surroundings during the incubation period. Typically, at 68 degrees Fahrenheit, there will be only females. At 71 to 74 degrees, there will be both males and females. And from 75 to 79 degrees, you would get all males. From 80 to 85 degrees you would again get males and females, but at 86 degrees, there would be only females.

"What a great mechanism. If you have a nest in a sunny area, you might have females on the top, males and females in the middle and on the bottom you might have all males," he said.

However, in the long run, factoring in all kinds of weather, equal numbers of males and females manage to be born, he said.

If, in coming weeks, you should encounter a snapping turtle crossing a road or traveling somewhere that it shouldn't, and it must be moved, either for its own protection or someone else's, what's the best way to move it?

Richmond said that it should not be picked up by the tail. "That can injure it."

Also, with its surprising quickness and habit of snapping, the shell should not be picked up with hands by someone who doesn't handle snappers regularly.

A snapper has a much longer neck than you would expect - it can typically reach almost halfway back across its shell with its head.

One way to approach the task is to grab the tail and then slide a hand from the rear under its belly and pick it up like a platter to carry it to safety. Another method is to maneuver a snow shovel under it, without getting too close to its jaws, and then slide it to a safe location.

Absent a handy snow shovel or the courage to get a hand near it, though, call the environmental police or the local police.


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