I Brake for Dinosaurs

By Paul Hetzler

Snapping turtles evoke a range of feelings from admiration to fear, but whatever your opinion, you have to respect their survival skills. Apparently turtles go back some 215 million years, but the snapper we know today has “only” endured for about 40 million years. In a 1993 article in Smithsonian magazine, biologist B. Gilbert called them “...creatures who are entitled to regard the brontosaur and mastodon as brief zoological fads.”

Physically snappers haven’t changed since prehistoric times, but their world sure has. As far as we can tell from the fossil record, motor vehicles were not a threat back then.

From late May until early July, female snappers are out looking for places to dig a hole in which to deposit their 20-40 leathery “Ping-Pong ball” eggs, and you may see them busily egg-laying on sandy road shoulders or crossing the pavement. Sadly, many such females, ranging in size from about eight pounds up to thirty—or more—are killed by traffic.

Even more tragic is the fact that some motorists intentionally hit snapping turtles, which are unfairly blamed for killing off game fish and young waterfowl. Snapping turtles are omnivores, feeding on everything from aquatic vegetation to crayfish to carrion. During the height of summer the majority of their diet is plant-based.

It’s not to say turtles won’t eat a bass or gosling, but decades of research from the 1950s to the present day indicate they have no measurable impact on game species. (Private ponds and other non-natural habitats are exceptions and can sometimes require turtle management.) Despite that, they’re still seen as a threat to wildlife by a small minority of those who fish and hunt.

A turtle’s shell, composed of a carapace (top) and a plastron (bottom) is an extension its vertebrae. As such, it’s living bone, though covered in tissue similar in composition to our fingernails. Unfortunately the shell isn’t as strong as it looks, and even if a turtle appears unscathed after being hit by a car, chances are it has numerous broken bones and internal injuries.

You can help a turtle cross the road as long as you follow a few rules. First, be safe. Don’t stop if you’ll be in danger of getting hit, or of causing a traffic accident. You don’t want to get other drivers injured (even if it turns out to be a turtle-hitter). Second, listen to the turtle. If she wants to get across the road, it doesn’t matter if you think conditions on the other side don’t look conducive to egg-laying. If you turn her back she’s just going to cross again.

The safest way to handle a snapping turtle, of course, is to ask someone else to do it. In the water they feel safe, and are generally docile—bites are extremely rare in water. On land, however, it’s a different story. Because snappers can’t pull themselves inside their shells as completely as other turtles can, they’ve developed attitude to compensate. Their unusually long necks can reach around nearly to their back legs to snap with their toothless—but sharp—beaks.

Picking up turtles by the tail may seem like a safe method, but this can damage their spines. So put on some heavy leather gloves and grasp the shell on either side about two-thirds of the way back. Careful, though. Remember the part about them reaching back past the middle of their shells to bite? I carry a scoop shovel in the trunk for turtle-herding.

Because road-killed snapping turtles are nearly always fertile females, road mortality is a real threat to their species. Snappers mature by size rather than age, and begin breeding when their shells measure roughly eight inches across. A large female can weigh 25-35 lbs. with a shell of 15”-20” in diameter.

Turtle shells are segmented like a mosaic. Each section, known as a scute, has growth rings that correspond to age, similar to the annual rings of a tree. These rings are how we know snappers in the wild can live at least 70 years, and quite possibly longer, though the average age is closer to thirty.

Slowing down near wetlands during breeding season can help reduce turtle mortality. You’re most likely to see snapping turtles during June from dawn to midday, and again in the evening. Also, let’s help restore their reputation by spreading the word that they’re not a danger to fish and waterfowl. We need to respect our elders, especially those that have been around longer than the dinosaurs.

Contact

Paul Hetzler
Horticulture & Natural Resources Educator
ph59@cornell.edu
315-379-9192 x 232

Last updated August 2, 2016