Snap Judgment

What the eastern snapping turtle lacks in personality it makes up for in persistence.

Illustration by Robert Meganck

“There is no such thing as a snapping turtle in a good mood,” says John Kleopfer.

As a herpetologist with the Virginia Department of Game and Inland Fisheries, Kleopfer has had plenty of occasions to encounter snapping turtles in all their surliness. Yet despite their well-earned reputation as curmudgeons, Chelydra serpentina serpentina, says Kleopfer, deserve our admiration.

“Snapping turtles are just beautifully ugly,” says Kleopfer. “They are such an impressive animal, a perfect animal.”

That’s “perfect,” of course, in the eyes of a herpetologist. Though the eastern snapping turtle looks like an escapee from Jurassic Park and acts like a hornets’ nest with a grievance, Kleopfer convincingly makes his case on its behalf.

First, he says, snapping turtles are “living fossils.” Turtles date back some 220 million years, and outlived the dinosaurs; the snapper itself has been around for a good 40 million years or more. It’s as though, says Kleopfer, tens of millions of years ago “Mother Nature said, ‘We’ve done enough with you, you are good to go.’”

They have survived thanks in part to adaptability. Snapping turtles are “habitat generalists,” says Kleopfer, that can make themselves at home in a remarkably wide variety of wetland environments, from mountain streams to roadside ditches to brackish coastal waters. They are known even to inhabit objectively foul environments, including sewers. “Snapping turtles can live in very stagnant water you wouldn’t think that anything would live in,” adds Kleopfer.

Snapping turtles are slow-growing, and in the wild they can live 45 to 50 years, and possibly longer, reaching weights upwards of 30 pounds (the largest-known turtle caught in Virginia was 51 pounds). They don’t reach sexual maturity for at least seven or eight years, and in the coldest months they hibernate, hunkering down into the mud in shallow water. “Their metabolism drops tremendously, so that it’s hard to detect any sign of life in them,” says Kleopfer.

They are omnivorous and opportunistic eaters. They consume aquatic vegetation and scavenge sick and dying fish. They will eat frogs, snakes and small mammals. They have been documented trying to drag a full-grown aquatic bird into deep water. However, notes Kleopfer, “Their impacts on waterfowl populations are grossly exaggerated.” Yes, they will occasionally take a duckling, but ducklings “are basically little web-footed cheeseburgers, and everything eats them.” Snapping turtles get the blame, theorizes Kleopfer, because “it’s easy to pick on a snapping turtle: They are not the most attractive animals.”

Undeniably, this is true. Mud-colored and sometimes algae-coated, snapping turtles have thick, powerful legs, sharp claws, a long, spiked, dinosaur-like tail and the perpetually choleric expression of an Internet troll whose Wi-Fi has gone wonky.

But let us not be judgmental. Icons of glamour they may not be, but “it’s pure folklore that they will come up and bite people’s toes,” says Kleopfer. “I have never heard of anybody having had that happen, and believe me, I have been in plenty of ponds and lakes myself.”

In fact, they are not, strictly speaking, aggressive­—particularly not in water, where they spend most of their time. When pestered on dry land, however, that’s another matter.

In Virginia, snapping turtles are most active in the late spring and summer, and if you encounter one roaming abroad during that time of year, it’s most likely a female searching for a nesting spot. Although getting hit by cars (along with being commercially harvested for food) represents a significant threat to snapping turtles, proceed with caution if you’re inclined to stage a rescue: A snapper will not welcome your well-meaning efforts with a beneficent spirit.

“They are very defensive,” explains Kleopfer. “Nothing messes with an adult snapping turtle.”

The claws (“formidable”) are “made for shredding,” he says. When a snapping turtle chomps on to something (or, if you are so unfortunate, someone), “they will bring their claws around and start tearing chunks off.”

And the business end of a snapping turtle is decidedly something to steer clear of. The snapper’s defensive strategy, notes Kleopfer, is pure offense. While it’s not true that a snapping turtle can break a broomstick in half, “They have powerful jaws that can cause serious damage.”

That head is spring-loaded for rapid deployment on a long, powerful, snakelike neck (hence the “serpentina” in the turtle’s Latin name); the spine folds up “almost like a Slinky,” according to Kleopfer. “The muscles are designed for a quick release and explosion of energy,” he says. “That neck and head can shoot out lightning-quick.”

So how do you get one to let go if it’s got you? Don’t hope for a handy clap of thunder, as folklore has it.

“The best way to do it,” says Kleopfer, “is don’t get bit.”

This article originally appeared in our February 2016 issue.

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