Common snapping turtles chelydra serpentina
By Steve Zuppa
The common snapping turtle is a very hardy, wide ranging specie. Its natural range extends from southern Canada through the eastern and central United States and eastern Mexico to northern South America. Throughout this range are 4 very similar subspecies. The 2 US races, C.s.serpentina and C.s.osceola are the two most commonly seen in hobbyist collections, and they are the two we will discuss throughout this care sheet.
Identification of this specie is relatively easy and is recognized by the brown or black carapace, small yellow or white plastron, large head, and a very long saw toothed tail. It is a heavy turtle specie, with long term captives being fattened to 86lbs. The carapace of young snappers is rough, but becomes smooth with age. Adults commonly reach 12 inches in shell length, and some even attain 18 inches and larger. Due to this large size, it does not make a very good pet for someone with limited space. If proper housing can be furnished however, Chelydra proves to be one of the hardiest species.
The common name “snapping turtle” refers to the aggressive behaviors of this specie when pulled form its aquatic home. Under water it is rather timid and prefers to swim away as to being confronted. When taken from its environment however, a snapping turtle will snap repeatedly. Sometimes a harassed specimen will raise the hind portion of its body and face whoever caught it, then lunge and attempt to bite. The jaws of the snapping turtle are strong and can cause serious damage to a careless handler. Other common names for the specie are alligator tailed turtle, snapper, and mud turtle (although it is not related to Kinosternon).
Evolution has made C.serpentina an ideal water predator. In much of its range, an adult snapper is at the top of the food chain (except for people). The large, mud colored shell makes excellent camouflage on the pond bottom. The plastron need not cover the entire portion of the snapping turtles lower side because this animal has no predators that lurk in the mud below it. It often crawls along the bottom rather than swimming and it is most active at dusk.
Although well able to take a fish if given the opportunity, most snapping turtles forage along the water bottom, eating sick or injured fish, carrion, mussels, fish and frog eggs, tadpoles and frogs, invertebrates and a surprising large amount of vegetation. Occasionally a healthy fish may be taken if cornered, and there are reports of snapping turtles taking snakes, baby alligators and even ducklings.
This large specie is difficult to house indoors. Although an enclosure as small as a 10 gallon tank will house several hatchlings, larger animals will need larger set ups.
Chelydra specimens rarely leave the water to bask and require a primarily aquatic set up. Instead, they typically float at the top of the water under an area heated by the sun or heat lamp. Young animals will sometimes float amongst aquatic vegetation in direct sunlight. A small land area should be provided however incase the reptile does decide to leave the water for a rest, etc.
The Hatchling Tank: Young snapping turtles should be provided a shallow water enclosure. The water depth should be at least as deep as the turtles shell is long, and a ramped land area must be provided. When resting, many snapping turtles cling to the sides of the land area with the head extending above the surface while the rest of the body is submerged.
Use non-abrasive aquarium sand or smooth river gravels as a substrate. Filtration is a must, otherwise the water quickly becomes fowled and needs frequent changing. Several hatchlings or 1-4”turtle can be kept in a 10 gallon tank. After this size, a larger setup must be provided, following the same basic guidelines.
The Adult Tank: When a turtle surpasses 8”, housing becomes difficult. A small adult could be housed in facilities as small as a 55 gallon terrarium. I prefer to use large plastic totes however. These are available from many super stores. A 2’x4’ plastic tote will house 1 large adult snapping turtle comfortably, although a larger set up would be even better.
The water depth in this should also be as deep as the turtle is long (carapace length), and a land area is not necessary unless the turtle has been bred or is sick. Instead a flat stone or other item should be placed in one area of the tank to provide a shallower place to rest. Adults do not typically rest in the same manner as juveniles and instead will typically just resurface for a breath every few hours or so. Adults are messy animals and will quickly fowl water if a high power filtration system is not put into play.
Heating and Lighting: The indoor turtle terrarium should be kept at approximately room temperature. A basking lamp should be positioned over the shallow area of the tank to provide a slightly warmed place to sit or “water bask” during the day.
UV emitting fluorescent bulbs are recommended for general lighting. A 12hour on 12 hour off photoperiod will keep the turtles healthy and active.
Outdoor Housing: Through out much of the United States and even southern Canada, C.s.serpentina can be kept outdoors throughout they year. In the southernmost US C.s.osceola can be also. The key to building a proper outdoor enclosure is providing a spacious habitat with multiple depth levels.
The pond for snapping turtles should be at least 4’x5’ for one adult turtle and larger for multiple specimens. Water depth should slope from around 6” deep to 18” or deeper. If the turtle is to over winter in this pond, the water must be deep enough so that it will not freeze all the way to the bottom.
Ponds can be earthen, cement, or plastic/rubber lined. If artificially lined, a layer of mud or sand should be placed on the bottom so that the turtle can dig into this for the winter. Earthen ponds offer snapping turtles the opportunity to dig under water “caves” inside the pond. They will use these areas to hide during the day and will sometimes over winter in them. A snag such as a large piece of driftwood helps create a more natural environment. The pond should be partially shaded and an area must receive the morning sun.
A high powered pump/heavy duty filtration system should be used if at all possible.
About 3’ from the rim of the pond, place your retaining wall. Snapping turtles are surprisingly great climbers that can easily cross over a wire or chain link fence. I recommend using aluminum sheeting to build the fence. When properly used, this is a very reliable and weather resistant fencing material. The wall should be tall enough that the turtles can not climb out of yet short enough so that the keeper can step into. Eighteen inches above the ground level and several inches below (to prevent “dig outs”) is very suitable.
Common snapping turtles are omnivorous. Other than commercial pellets, try offering a variety of fresh foods as well. They will accept appropriately sized minnows, gold fish, crayfish and pond snails. The young are very fond of mealworms, guppies and ghost shrimp. Young and adult alike appreciate night crawlers. Chicken meat, beef heart, turkey, and fish slabs are all good to offer as well. A surprisingly large amount of the diet should consist of vegetation as well. Try giving out romaine lettuce, mustard greens, elodea, water hyacinths; and some will even take strawberries, apple and banana on occasion (although these items should only be offered periodically). Turtle, trout and catfish chows can be given, but these items should not make up the entire food intake.
Growth and Longevity
A hatchling snapping turtle is small, only about an inch or so at hatch. Within a year though, a well cared for turtle may be 2 ˝ to 4”; and within 5 years may be 8” or larger and ready to breed.
Captive specimens often live 25-40 years but 50 years or longer is possible.
Like most temperate turtle species, Chelydra needs some sort of a cool down/rest period in order to encourage breeding. Because housing for multiple individuals in an indoor setting is difficult or even impossible for many, most keepers are only able to breed snapping turtles kept in outdoor setups. In the outdoor pond, breeding takes place shortly after hibernation. This may be in late February for those in the south or April for those farther north. They breed in shallow water and 6 -10 weeks later, a female will leave the water and deposit her eggs.
In the wild, females may travel great distances from her water home to find a suitable nesting area. By providing a sandy area, she will be more apt to lay in your pen. Nesting takes place in evening, usually after a rain, and may last well into night. Inside the nest she may lay up to 40 or more eggs, although the typical number is 10-30.
The eggs may take 3-4 months to hatch, and in northern climates, the young may over winter in the nest.
If you want to artificially incubate your eggs, place them in a plastic container shoe box and poke several holes in the side for air exchange. Inside the egg container should be a 1 inch deep layer of moistened vermiculite. As the eggs are removed from the nest, and x should be placed on top to ensure you do not rotate them. After 24 hours, rolling a turtle egg will result in killing the embryo.
Each egg is about 1” in diameter and looks like a ping pong ball.
Snapping turtles are temperature sexed, and eggs kept at 73F produce primarily males. However if the temps are raised to 77F most of the young will be females.
When ready to hatch, the young snappers will slit the egg using their egg tooth. Don’t be alarmed if they wait several days after this before emerging. Just make sure the hatching container stays moist.
After emerging, the young will still have remnants of they egg sac left on them. It usually takes 1-3 days before they begin accepting food because they are still absorbing this egg yolk.
Newborns should be kept in very shallow water for the first few days of life- just over the carapace level. After they become more active and begin normal feeding habits, you can introduce them to the hatchling tanks described previously.
Did you know?
For many years snapping turtles have been used for making turtle soup, and each year hundreds of adults are harvested for this purpose.
In Asia, eating turtles is so common that some countries import millions of hatchlings (of snapping turtle and other species) from US farms for the purpose of raising and eating.
In the past, snapping turtles were used to locate human bodies in creeks, rivers and lake.
The safest way to handle a large, aggressive snapping turtle is by carrying it by the tail (with the head pointed away from you!).
In some Central American villages, snapping turtles are considered pests because they will grab chicks from the water banks and eat them.
Snapping turtles have been known to eat other turtles, including young of their own specie.
Chelydra serpentina makes a very hardy and adaptable captive if proper housing and care can be furnished. They are extremely suitable for outdoor keeping and can be cared for this way as far north as southern Canada. Despite common belief that all snapping turtles grow up to be aggressive, if handled frequently from a young age, they can become just as “tame” as many other water turtles. Although not the most personable as some of the more terrestrial chelonians, this specie makes a great display animal, and is very impressive in both size and habits.
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