The Jaws that Bite…

A little while ago I was invited to participate in a wildlife conference in Ontario, Canada (as opposed to the Ontario, California where Mag-Lights are manufactured).  The conference took place on a geologic feature called the Frontenac Arch, a narrow finger of the Canadian Shield that reaches south past Ottawa to the St. Lawrence, separating the calcium rich sedimentary rock formations of south eastern Canada into two portions.

The land here is flat scoured by billions (yes, billions) of years of weathering, and is littered with with numerous lakes, bogs, and marshes that pool on the surface in the wake of the most recent glaciation.  These wetlands are home to a wide variety of animal life, a reptilian subset of which was studied by one of the conference attendees.  He was conducting turtle surveys, looking for stinkpot, or musk, turtles specifically, but interested in all the rest as well.

In one of the wetlands he pointed out two large snapping turtles (Chelydra serpentina) and, to our surprise, reached in and pulled one out so we could see it better.

25 pound male snapping turtle

Assuring us, over our skepticism, that the snapping turtle wouldn’t bite while it was in the water this bold fellow picked up the large male turtle and held it for us to see.

Snapping Turtles are the largest of the freshwater turtles north of Mexico and range from east of the Rockies though southern Canada and down to Florida.  In the wild they live up to 30 or 40 years and eat pretty much whatever they can fit in their mouths, plant or animal.  Their scientific name, Chelydra serpentina, roughly translates into “serpent like turtle”.

Unlike many turtles, snappers cannot fully withdraw their heads unto their shell.  Instead they have evolved long, flexible necks and sharp, powerful jaws with which they both feed and discourage other curious animals.

An upset snapping turtle

Getting bitten by a snapping turtle would be an extremely unpleasant experience, but contrary to popular belief, they are unlikely to be able to sever fingers or toes.  That being said, having been bitten by other animals with beaks, I am not going to volunteer to be bitten by any turtle, let alone a snapping turtle.

Like other predators, snapping turtles are blamed for much more damage to wildlife than they are actually responsible for.  The public misunderstanding of their impact on duck and fish populations results in little support for conservation efforts aimed at snappers.  On the whole this is not a problem, their numbers are good and the IUCN considers them a species of least concern, and in many areas they are caught for soups and such.

Like other turtles, snapping turtles are extremely sensitive to habitat disturbance.  Indeed turtles in general are good indicator species for assessing wetland habitat conditions, and snapping turtle eggs have been used as indicators of environmental contaminate levels.

Snapping turtles will travel great distances overland while dispersing, searching for a wetland that matches their needs.  It is common to find them crossing roads in the spring and summer.  If you do encounter one crossing the road and desire to move it to a safer place, great care must be taken, both for your own safety and for the safety of the turtle. The best place to pick one up from is the rear of the plastron, the lower portion of the shell (see how the turtle is being held in the first photo).  Grabbing from anywhere else can result in injury to both you and the turtle.

When snappers are young they are tiny, extremely cute, and subject to predation from a wide variety of other animals ranging from birds to raccoons and fish.

Baby snapping turtle, shell about 2 inches long

Snapping turtles have been around for a long time without changing much.  Modern snapping turtles are about 40 million years old, but their ancestors looked much like the modern ones and have been around for 215 million years.  That is nearly a quarter billion years.  Pretty much everything that has ever lived is a passing fad to the snapping turtles.

Admire them, show some respect, and keep your fingers clear.

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