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Give Snappers a Break

July 11, 2013

Early summer Downeast is egg-laying season for snapping turtles.  On any given day, driving around the Downeast region, you will likely see  gravid snapping turtle females on or crossing the roads, traveling up to eight miles, looking for a sandy spot in which to lay their eggs.

Female snapping turtles don’t start laying eggs until their late teens. Though many nests may fail, due to predators discovering the eggs, or a poor choice of nest location, the turtles can have a life span in excess of seventy years.  This means that occasionally producing a successful nest is enough to keep the population healthy. Unfortunately, these long-lived animals, with few natural predators, are vulnerable to our cars and trucks on the roads.  Each year many female turtles are killed as they cross roads, or dig nests into sandy berms. Snapping turtles’ reproductive strategy makes the loss of breeding adults a significant problem.  When too many adults die without reproducing, populations can collapse.  With this in mind, they have been listed as a species of “Special Concern” in Canada.

Not everybody loves these large reptiles – they wouldn’t win any beauty contests, and some misconceptions about their diet can contribute to peoples’ dislike of them.

  Don’t snapping turtles eat lots of ducklings?

No.  They do occasionally eat ducklings. Snapping turtles are omnivores, and as reptiles, they have a slow metabolism.  Across a season they will eat their weight. (Compare that with ourselves, who eat our weight once every 38 days!) Of that twenty-five pounds of food they eat each summer, over sixteen pounds will be aquatic vegetation, The rest of their diet is made up of slow moving  fish, carrion, crustaceans, and frogs. Extensive studies have failed to find any differences in brood size and survival of birds between areas where snapping turtle densities had been reduced to 0 and areas where they had been left at natural levels.

     What about game fish?

Snapping turtles are slow-moving creatures by nature.  Snapping turtles relax in shallow muddy spots, where the mere extension of their necks takes them to the surface for a breath.   Slow moving bottom feeding fish are an important part of their diet, but again, given their slow metabolism, they don’t have a significant impact on fish populations.  Larger fish are far more important predators of small fish!

Help Snapping Turtles Cross the Road:

  • Drive slowly during June and July and be on the lookout for snapping turtles crossing the roads, especially from dawn to noon, in the evening and on warm rainy days.
  • Be aware of your safety first when stopping to assist a turtle.
  • DO NOT pick up a snapping turtle.Their necks are as long as their bodies, so they have a surprising ability to bite anyone handling them.
  • DO NOT pick up a snapping turtle by its tail.  (You can separate it’s spine doing this!)
  • Herd a turtle across the road with the gentle encouragement of a boot toe, verbal ‘shooings” and enthusiastic clapping behind them.
  • Alternately if you still have a snow shovel in the trunk, slide it under the plastron of a cranky turtle to expedite her journey across the road.
  • Do not attempt to dissuade a turtle by turning her back and shooing her off the way she came.  As soon as you drive away, she will try to cross the road again.  Expedite her in the direction in which she was walking.
  • Do not attempt to relocate a traveling turtle. Moving them confuses them and can potentially cause them wander aimlessly until they meet another, less friendly motorist.