The common snapping turtle has a hard shell (carapace) on its back which is colored brown, olive or black in color. This has three raised keels. The shell can measure between 20 and 36cm (8-14in) long. Sometimes these turtles are found with algae growing on their shell. This provides them with camouflage.
Unlike other turtles which can pull their head in to their body the common snapping turtle is too large to be able to achieve this. Common snapping turtles have their nose at the tip of the head to allow them only put a small portion of their head out of the water when breathing.
They have a strong beak like jaw and a long, mobile neck. The strong beak has a rough edge to allow them to cut food.
Their tail is nearly as long as their shell. This has a range of bumps along it. The neck, legs, and tail are yellow while the head is darker in color.
Common snapping turtles have a range of bumps (tubercles) on their neck and legs.
Male common snapping turtles are larger than females. They may weigh up to 16kg (35lbs).
During the day they tend to be sit and wait predators. While at night the common snapping turtle is an active predator lunging at prey.
Common snapping turtles are found in North America. Here they range in Canada and the United States. In the United States they can be found east of the rocky mountains and as far south as Florida and Texas.
Introduced populations exist overseas in Japan, the Netherlands, the United Kingdom and China. They have also been introduced to Arizona, California, Nevada and Oregon in the United States where they did not previously occur.
They make their home in any water body such as lakes, rivers, marshes and creeks. With the expansion of humans they can now be found in man-made reservoirs. They tend to prefer shallow, slower moving habitats.
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Nesting season takes place from April to November with some variation to this across their large range.
Mating may involve no prior interaction or it may include a display where the pair face one another and extend their necks. Females may not need to mate every season as they can retain sperm from one breeding season for the next.
Females will leave the water to find a suitable nesting site in sand or gravel in to which they can dig the nest. A muskrat lodge may also be used for the nest. A single clutch made up of 20-30 eggs is laid per season. The eggs are a creamy white color. Females may travel large distances to find a suitable nest site with some recorded up to 1.6km (1mile) from water.
After she lays her eggs the female cover them over and return to the water. From this point on the eggs and hatchlings are responsible for themselves.
The gender of the hatchlings is temperature dependent. Lower temperatures produce females, medium temperatures produce a mixture and higher temperatures produce males.
Eggs incubate for 80-90 days before hatching. When they are ready to hatch they use the egg tooth to break through the shell. At hatching they have a soft shell and must avoid predators as they make their way to the water.
It is not uncommon for the entire nest of eggs to be lost due to cold weather or predation.
Sexual maturity is tied to carapace length rather than age. Typically it occurs around 20.3cm (8in) long. It may take a turtle between 15 and 20 years to reach this size.
Common snapping turtles are considered nocturnal and emerge at night to feed.
As an ectotherm the common snapping turtle must bask in the sun. Unlike most turtles which bask on land these turtles typically bask at the surface of the water.
During cold weather they will burrow in to mud or leaf litter. Here they can hibernate during the cold weather.
Predators and Threats
Natural predators of the snapping turtle mainly prey on young with the adults protected by their large size and hard shell. These predators include northern raccoons, herons, bullfrogs, skunks and other turtles.
Due to their habit of wandering on land the common snapping turtle is a frequent victim of vehicle strikes.
They are hunted in small numbers for their flesh. Humans also affect them through accumulation of poisons in their habitat.
Well meaning people will attempt to help young which they find without a mother. As they are independent from birth this is not a problem. Despite this people will sometimes rescue them and this may lead to them not being able to be released to the wild as they become reliant on humans.
The common snapping turtle is New York’s state reptile.
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