Wild Profile: Meet the snapping turtle

Adult snapping turtle By Patrick Rolands/Shutterstock

Our largest freshwater turtle, the snapping turtle, spends a lot of time in the lake, like any hard-core cottager. Until June, of course: that’s when females venture onto shore to dig nests and deposit their 30 or 40 eggs: rubbery, white, and about half the size of ping pong balls.

A mother snapper uses her hind feet to dig a hole as deep as 18 cm, usually within 10 metres of the water. She chooses somewhere gravelly or sandy, and will take advantage of human-created spots, including aggregate pits and the gravel shoulders of the road—dangerous for Mom and the babies, yikes. Once the three-dozen eggs are tucked inside the nest, she’ll cover them with dirt, and return to the water.

The toonie-sized hatchlings won’t bust out of their shells until September—assuming the eggs survive. Snapping turtles lay a lot of eggs because skunks, raccoons, and other predators discover, and raid, at least 80 per cent of nests. And only about one per cent of hatchlings survive long enough to reach five years old. By about age 20, snappers are considered mature. Some can live for more than a century and grow almost as big as a garbage can lid.

Here’s why understanding the nesting habits of turtles is the key to conservation.

Unlike other turtles, snappers can’t completely retract their limbs into their shells. Thus their “snap” defence: lunging up to 20 cm by stretching out their necks and snapping their jaws. Sadly, this won’t help protect them from one of their greatest threats: cars. The turtles move too slowly to get out of the way of a vehicle. So, it’s PSA time! Slow down on cottage country roads, especially if you see Turtle Crossing signs. Drive safe; save some turtles.

It’s a hard-knock life: why Ontario’s turtles are in trouble.

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