Saturday, June 6, 2009

Snapper

While on a walk through a local state park, I had stopped to look over a large pit full of brush and wood chips left by the snowmobile club after clearing trails from winter blow downs. My companion on the walk commented that turtles love to nest in these mulch piles in his yard.

Just then I looked across at the berm.......and there just above the bare slope....

was a snapping turtle. We walked across to take a closer look. This good-sized snapper, with a carapace about a foot long was not moving. She was silently laying eggs. Given that they lay 20-40 ping-pong ball-sized eggs, she was going to be there awhile. Click on the photo above to see if you can pick her out.

She did not move a muscle, or hiss, or snap. This gave us time to admire her long, prominent tail with the saw-toothed ridge, the smooth edge to the carapace, except at the rear where it looks like jagged teeth.

Snapping turtles have muscular legs with 5 sharp claws and a sharp powerful jaw. The carapace and plastron are joined only by a narrow bridge. So, unlike other turtles, they can not pull their head and legs completely inside their shell. This makes them vulnerable on land and a reason for their aggressive behavior when out of water.

Snapping turtle, Chelydra serpentina

This female, peacefully laying her eggs, reflects their behavior in water. Snapping turtles are shy and docile when in water, slipping quietly underwater. They hang out in all kinds of wetlands, feeding on small fish, snails, frogs, ducklings and other birds, carrion, cattail shoots and other plants.

This reptile is often maligned, yet it evolved 60 to 100 million years ago. Despite this long existence, most snapping turtle nests are lost to predators such as skunks, raccoons, foxes, and coyotes. We moved on, leaving the female in peace to finish laying her eggs. When done she will crawl down the hill into the wetland that borders the headwaters of the Lamprey River.

If the nest is successful and the eggs hatch, the sex of the young turtles that emerge will have been determined by temperature. Warmer temperatures produce females, cooler temperatures produce males. The eggs won't hatch for another 2 to 4 months so who knows what this summer will bring for temperatures and snapper offspring.

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