Snapping turtle time is here! New York’s official state reptile, Chelydra serpentina, is on the move, after spending the winter snoozing in the mud with only its eyes and nostrils unburied. These omnivores are mostly aquatic, so if you see one out of the water, it’s likely a female searching for a good site to scrape out a nest. June and July are their peak nesting time.
Helping slow-moving turtles cross roads safely is the sort of Good Samaritan task that can make a person’s day, if you can spare the time to stop your car and scoot the critter more quickly to its apparent destination. Most of us would think twice or thrice about doing that for a snapper, though. Their digging claws are long and sharp, and their powerful beaks and strong jaws can inflict serious damage on a human hand. And they are aggressive when they feel threatened – considerably more so on land than in water, in fact.
There’s a survival reason for their testy tempers: The plastron or underside shell of a snapping turtle doesn’t cover all of its abdomen, leaving plenty of room around the legs for swimming movements. There are thus soft parts exposed that make the animal vulnerable to any large predator that managed to grab onto it. So the snapper, if approached, bites first and asks questions later. As a result, once it reaches adulthood, most other beasties will leave it alone to live out its 30-to-40-year lifespan in peace. Some specimens studied in Ontario were estimated to be more than a century old.
How do you know if that turtle in need of an assist across the asphalt is a kind that’s safe to handle? Well, snappers are tough to confuse with any others of our native turtles. They’re one of the largest and heaviest turtles in North America, with adults’ shells averaging eight to 20 inches in length, and weighing ten to 35 pounds. One wild specimen was reported to weigh an astounding 75 pounds.
The snapping turtle’s upper shell is usually dark brown or black, with three keels or ridges running from front to back and a “toothed” rear edge. It’s neither as flat as a painted or map turtle nor as highly domed as a box turtle. But it’s most readily identifiable by its large hooked beak – considerably more impressive than those of other native turtle species – and by the long, dragonlike tail and extendible neck that put the serpentina in its binomial nomenclature.
So, let’s say you’ve spotted a determined mama snapper crossing a road in search of a safe place to lay its eggs. You don’t want to touch her and lose a few fingers, but you don’t want to see her get squashed by a car, either. There are actually some safe ways to lift them. Not by the tail, though, no matter what old wives’ tales you may have heard encouraging that approach: It’s a good way to break the turtle’s spine and condemn it to a slow death. Nor do you want to provoke the turtle into chomping onto a stick and using that as a handle to drag it across the street. The scraping to its plastron could also do fatal damage.
Probably the safest method for both parties is to lay one of the front-seat floormats from your car in front of the turtle and use a long stick to prod it gently to move forward onto the mat. Then you can grab the other end of the mat – well away from that angry beak – and give the creature a magic carpet ride.
It is also possible to carry a snapping turtle safely with your hands, if you dare: Approaching the animal from the rear, there’s some room for your fingers to grasp it under the edge of the upper shell above the rear legs. One hand can then go under the plastron to help support the animal’s weight. You can see this approach demonstrated in a YouTube video at www.youtube.com/watch?v=jyS7dqNku1U. The New York State Department of Environmental Conservation has its own YouTube channel, where you can learn more about the common snapping turtle at www.youtube.com/watch?v=LAJ4vczYNfI.
Then again, you might simply want to stand in the road like a crossing guard and practice your best traffic-calming gestures on approaching motorists until Mama Snapper finishes ambling across at her own pace.