Conservation Corner

A Snap Chat on Snapping Turtles

By Dan Zarlenga, Missouri Department of Conservation

Snapping turtles can get a bit snippy sometimes. They used to be referred to as the “common snapping turtle”. More recently though, scientists prefer to call them simply “snapping turtles”. But that’s not what snapping turtles get snippy about.

These turtles live throughout Missouri and are the most commonly-found members of the snapping turtle family. Biologists removed the word “common” from the name because they didn’t want to mislead people into thinking they were more abundant than they really are. While these turtles are in the same family as the alligator snapping turtles, each one is a distinct species. Alligator snapping turtles live only in the eastern part of the state.

The (common) snapping turtle is very large and can weigh from 10 to 35 pounds. It has a big, pointed head, long thick tail, and small plastron or lower shell. Its upper shell may be tan, brown, or nearly black. Snapping turtles are aquatic, which means you’ll find them mostly near water, like farm ponds, marshes, swamps, sloughs, and along rivers. In fact, you’ll often see them covered with mud or algae. People sometimes spot them crossing roads in spring and early summer when they’re on the move for mating and egg laying.

By contrast, alligator snappers are almost always in the water. They have three distinct ridges on the top of their shells, looking much like the alligator their name suggests. They can get quite a bit larger than the more common snappers.

Snapping turtles have a reputation for being irritable, feisty and combative. They have extremely powerful jaws, and if they feel threatened, snapping turtles can cause some serious pain if they snap your fingers. But there have never been any verified accounts of them actually biting anyone’s fingers off. Still, it’s smart to stay on their good side, which usually means behind them and at a safe distance! And by no means try to pick a snapping turtle up.

For all the bluster they display on land, in the water where they spend a lot of their time they’re not nearly as snippy. Fact is, when danger appears a snapping turtle is much more likely to flee below the surface and hide itself deep in sediment at the bottom, than do any snapping. Maybe that’s why they’re covered in mud so much of the time.

Snapping turtles can mate anytime between April and November, but they tend to do so mostly in late spring and early summer. June is usually when females lay their eggs. They dig a nest in deep sand or loose soil and deposit 20–30 eggs. These eggs begin hatching in late August, so be on the lookout for baby snapping turtles soon.

Now that you’ve had a little snap chat on snapping turtles, don’t take it personally if they get a bit snippy with you. It might be that they’re just a little out of sorts on land, and only want to settle into some cozy sediment somewhere in the water.