Over the weekend, I saw three big Snapping Turtles (Chelydra serpentina) in Green-Wood Cemetery. This is the time of year they emerge from the murk of ponds and lakes to reproduce, the female often travelling long distances to find soft earth, dirt, or fine gravel in which to bury her clutch of eggs. Unlike in most turtle species, male Snappers are actually larger than the females.Growing to platter-sized, these animals can live nearly five decades in captivity, but the rigors of the wild reduce that to about 30 years. One problem is that the type of ground they dig their nests in is now often found on driveways and dirt roads, hazardous both because cars can crush the animals and destroy the nests through compaction. Also, they must cross paved roads to find these places. Here’s a video on how to help a Snapper cross the road (don’t pick it up by the tail). Snappers have spread into Europe through the pet trade. A 44-pounder was captured in a canal near Rome last year. As with the other turtles, mortality is very high; few of their young survive to adulthood, but some old vets live long and deep. Baby snappers, especially in their northern range, will hatch in September and October, but stay in the nest through the winter, only emerging the following spring, when they make their sometimes long, instinctive journey towards water. Other species follow the same strategy: remember the baby Painted Turtle I found one early spring on Nantucket?The Snapper’s common and species name serpentina both allude to their strong jaws and long necks. They have a surprisingly small plastron, or bottom shell, and can’t retreat into their shell like other turtle species, so their best defense is a strong offense. Their claws are also formidable, about an inch long in this case. They are turned up here because this animal has its feet pointing backwards. Snappers have a fearsome reputation, more hype than reality in my experience, but can be aggressive in response to interference. I mean, if you lose your finger because you poke one, don’t blame the turtle. So, as with all wild things, you shouldn’t approach too closely and you shouldn’t touch (unless you’re helping it off a road).The other two snappers, which looked just as big, were in the water. Note those little nostrils at the very tip of the face; they can stick just the tip of their snout above water to breath, and you probably wouldn’t notice them at all. The animals in the water seemed as curious about me as I was about them.
Turtles have been around for some 215 million years. They are older than their fellow reptiles the lizards, snakes, and crocodiles. A Snapper in particular, lifting its shell high, spiky tail dragging behind, has a dinosaurish look to it when it walks.
Prospect Park has Snappers, too.