Snapping turtles have a fearsome reputation for aggression. Their ferocious jaws are the subject of many an urban legend among the riverside communities of the United States where they are endemic. But despite their potential snapping power, these prehistoric reptilians play a vital role in the aquatic ecosystems which they inhabit, and they are actually far more docile than their reputation might suggest. Here are 29 snap-tastic facts about snapping turtles!
29 Amazing Snapping Turtle Facts
- Snapping turtles are freshwater reptilians belonging to the Chelydridae family. The family is separated into two distinct genera, the first being the Chelydra serpentina (common snapping turtle), and the second being the Macrochelys temminckii (alligator snapping turtle). A second Macrochelys species was recognised as recently as 2014. Macrochelys suwanniensis (suwannee snapping turtle) is closely related to, but subtly distinct from, the alligator snapping turtle.
- Despite only two extant genera of snapping turtle remaining, there were once nine distinct species of snapping turtle roaming the earth, seven of which have long become extinct. The earliest fossil evidence of snapping turtles dates back to the Late Cretaceous period around 90 million years ago when dinosaurs still roamed the Earth, meaning snapping turtles are probably the oldest turtle species on the planet.
- The Alligator snapping turtle is by far the largest member of the Chelydridae family, with adult specimens tipping the scales at an average weight of around 45 to 80kg, making it one of the heaviest species of freshwater turtle in the world. By contrast, the much smaller Common snapping turtle typically weighs between 5 and 16kg.
- Unverified reports claimed an Alligator snapping turtle was caught during the Great Depression which weighed a whopping 183kg. The largest verified Alligator snapping turtle lived in captivity at the Chicago Aquarium and weighed 113kg.
- Snapping turtles are native to freshwater areas such as the streams, swamps, lakes, ponds, and rivers of North America, with the Alligator snapping turtle being found only in Southeastern states of North America. The Common Snapping turtle has a much more expansive territory than its larger cousin, stretching from the icy lakes of Canada to the humid swamps of Florida. The Suwannee snapping turtle has the most localised territory of all and can be found only in a very localised region of the Suwanee River.
- Common snapping turtles living in the icy depths of Canadian lakes do not breathe oxygen for the six months over winter when the lakes freeze over. They have evolved a highly specialised way of getting oxygen whilst they hibernate beneath the ice, through a process known as extrapulmonary respiration, where they exchange gases through the membranes of their nose and mouth. They also use anaerobic respiration, where they convert glucose into energy without the need for oxygen.
- Snapping turtles are almost exclusively aquatic and they rarely leave the water. During the breeding season, females will move on to land to lay their eggs, and very occasionally, they will venture on to land to bask in the warm summer sun.
- The Common snapping turtle, Chelydra serpentina, is so named because of its distinctly serpent-like elongated neck, which is capable of a broad range of motion similar to the movements of snakes and is much longer than that of their Alligator snapping turtle cousins.
- Predictably, the Alligator snapping turtle got its name because of its incredibly powerful jaws, and the ridged pattern of its shell, which is reminiscent of knobbly alligator scales.
- It has been said that an Alligator snapping turtle can bite clean through a wooden broom handle. When this hypothesis was put to the test by a biologist, it actually took two attempts for the adult alligator snapping turtle to bite a broom handle clean in half. There are, however, several reported cases of Alligator snapping turtles biting people’s fingers clean off!
- Despite their snappy name, the maximum bite force of a Common snapping turtle is estimated to be around 656 Newtons, yet the average bite registers just 220 Newtons. The bite force of the larger Alligator snapping turtle is slightly weaker, registering around 160 Newtons on average. By contrast, the bite force of human molars is around 1200 Newtons!
- Snapping turtles have one of the fastest strike rates in the animal kingdom, registered at a lightning-fast 174 miles per hour!
- Snapping turtles’ diets are almost entirely carnivorous. Although they do hunt and catch live food, they prefer to scavenge and will feast on the carcasses of fish, snakes, snails, frogs, water birds, and even small alligators and mammals such as raccoons and armadillos. They have also been known to eat the carcasses of other snapping turtles. One study found that almost 80 percent of the content of adult Alligator snapping turtles’ stomachs was comprised of the remains of other Alligator snapping turtles!
- When they are unable to scavenge, Alligator snapping turtles will trap live prey in their ferocious jaws. The greenish-brown colour of their shells gives the turtles fantastic camouflage in the muddy riverbeds. They will lay in wait, incredibly still, with their mouths agape to reveal their bright pink tongue which imitates the wriggling motions of a worm. Fishes and other prey are easily tricked into thinking that the turtles’ tongues are a tasty snack, and swim right into their mouths when the turtle will clamp its beak-like jaws down tightly around its unsuspecting prey. This form of hunting by trickery is known as ‘aggressive mimicry’.
- Snapping turtles seek out areas where prey is abundant by tasting the chemicals in the water which are released by other animals. Their senses are so finely tuned that they are able to differentiate between different animal species through these chemosensory cues.
- Snapping turtles are largely nocturnal, meaning they do most of their hunting, scavenging, and mating at night.
- Female snapping turtles can store viable sperm in their oviducts for several seasons until they are ready to lay their eggs.
- The sex of snapping turtle offspring is determined by the ambient temperature at which the eggs are incubated. Higher temperatures are likely to result in more male offspring.
- Whilst adult snapping turtles have no natural predators except for humans, their eggs and juveniles are particularly vulnerable to attacks from other reptiles, birds, and larger mammals.
- The potential lifespan of snapping turtles in the wild is not known for sure but is estimated to be between 80 to 120 years, whilst a Common snapping turtle is thought to live to around 100 years old.
- In 2006, elementary school children in New York selected the Common snapping turtle as the official state reptile of New York.
- Despite their fearsome reputation for aggression, there has never been a human death at the jaws of a snapping turtle. They are not prone to biting humans, and will only attack when they feel threatened or provoked. Generally, they prefer to shy away from human interaction, and Common snapping turtles, in particular, tend to be rather docile. They are most combative when they are out of the water, which, luckily for humans, doesn’t happen often.
- The nostrils of Common snapping turtles are positioned at the very tip of their snouts, acting as snorkels above the waterline whilst their bodies remain almost fully submerged in water.
- The Alligator snapping turtle is the only species of turtle in the world whose eyes are positioned on the sides of its head, rather than on the top.
- Snapping turtles can hold their breath underwater for around 50 minutes whilst awake. This increases to around five hours when they are resting, and can be reduced to as little as ten minutes if they are diving or hunting.
- Common snapping turtle meat is the main ingredient in snapper soup! Considered a delicacy throughout North America, its popularity has dwindled somewhat in recent years. The dark brown gravy-like dish was traditionally infused with sherry and was reported to be the favourite dish of the second US president, John Adams.
- Snapping turtles swim at an average of eight to ten miles per hour. That’s two miles per hour faster than Olympic swimmer Michael Phelps! On land, however, their cumbersome legs and heavy shells mean that they rarely exceed 2.5 miles per hour.
- Despite their somewhat fearsome reputation as predators, snapping turtles are a vital part of aquatic ecosystems. Their scavenging diet keeps the waterways clear of dead and decaying matter, and their ability to remain very still for long periods underwater means that their shells often become covered in algae, an essential underwater oxygenator.
- Snapping turtles cannot hide inside their shells like other turtles! Their shells are barely big enough to cover their whole bodies, and there is certainly no space left over to conceal their stocky limbs and heads.
So, it seems the reputation for aggression and ferocious sounding name of these river-dwelling reptilians may be somewhat unjustified. Whilst they do have a powerful bite, and they certainly know how to defend themselves, snapping turtles are more likely to be found lazing around on the riverbed than snapping with their powerful jaws. They truly are some of the most misunderstood creatures of the animal kingdom. Just mind your fingers!
- D. E. Pearse, J. C. Avise, Turtle Mating Systems: Behavior, Sperm Storage, and Genetic Paternity, Journal of Heredity, Volume 92, Issue 2, March 2001, Pages 206–211,