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WILD ABOUT TEXAS: Snapping turtle has an undeservedly bad reputation

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Posted: Saturday, December 17, 2011 12:00 am | Updated: 2:44 pm, Mon Aug 27, 2012.

Many animals, particularly reptiles and various other “creepy-crawlies,” suffer persecution not for what they do, but for what they are perceived to do. One such creature is the typically benign snapping turtle.

The common snapping turtle (Chelydra serpentina) occurs in just about every area of this state, save the more arid areas of the Trans-Pecos and Rio Grande Valley eco-regions. From here, they range northward to southern Canada and eastward to southern Georgia, where another subspecies takes over. Generally speaking, snappers are an almost totally aquatic species that thrive in just about any slow-moving or quiet body of water that has ample vegetation to provide camouflage.

Snappers are large turtles, with wild adult males capable of achieving weights of more than thirty-five pounds. In the throngs of protected captivity, where they are often overfed, adult males can weigh an astounding 60 pounds or more. The carapace, or top shell, can be up to just over 19 inches in length.

This species’ coloration undergoes a change as the turtle matures. The coloration of the carapace of juveniles is dark brown to chestnut and is extremely keeled. However, adults have a much smoother shell, and it is typically more olive in coloration. Many adults have prominent algae growth on their shells, giving them the appearance of being bright green. The back edge of the carapace is highly serrated. The nose is slightly pointed, and the head and long neck are both covered in rounded tubercles.

There are two diagnostic characteristics that can be used to separate this species from other native turtles. The first is the length of the tail. Every other species of native turtle (aquatic or not) has a short, stubby tail. Not so with the snapping turtle. The tail of the snapper is as long, if not slightly longer, than the length of the carapace. The tail also has a thin serrated crest along the top of it.

The second characteristic is the shape of the plastron, or bottom shell. In all other native turtles, the plastron is the same size or slightly smaller than the carapace. Again, the snapper is an exception to this. The plastron of the snapper is small, T-shaped and very soft. It is connected to the carapace at just two points along the side of the body.

Mating in this species occurs in the spring, and females are often seen on land as they trek to find a suitable nesting area. Up to fifty eggs are laid in a nest that has been dug out by the female, and hatching occurs in about two and one-half months. The young are small, having a carapace length of approximately one inch.

The diet of this aquatic turtle is primarily fish, although other aquatic vertebrate animals such as frogs, snakes, and other turtles are occasionally eaten. Contrary to popular belief among fisherman, the snapping turtle is not capable of depleting the stock of game fish in a body of water as it is too slow to capture healthy specimens.

As the common name implies, the most striking characteristic of this species is the savage defensive behavior. This behavior is truly a “Dr. Jekyll & Mr. Hyde” performance. Unbeknownst to most people, while in the water, the snapping turtle is usually quiet and inoffensive. However, when encountered on land, it can be horrendously aggressive, surprisingly fast and agile in its attempts to bite whatever it feels to be a threat. While it is not a turtle that should be approached carelessly, as it has powerful jaws capable of delivering a painful bite, it should not be teased and molested either.

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