UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. — May and June in Pennsylvania bring increased sightings of snapping turtles as these ancient reptiles leave their normal aquatic habitat to lay eggs on land. Since these turtles are abundant across the entire state, they are a common sight among pond owners.
These turtles are typically shy and prone to swim away from humans when they are in water, but they are often more aggressive when encountered on land during their spring egg laying. The combination of their scary, dinosaur-like appearance and their aggressive spring-time behavior often results in their untimely death by fearful pond owners.
While snapping turtles may not be welcome at many ponds, they do play an important role in the pond “clean-up crew” by scavenging dead and decaying organic debris and nuisance aquatic plants.
A better understanding of their role, life cycle, and feeding habits often results in a new-found respect and coexistence between “snappers” and pond owners and an overall healthier pond ecosystem.
Identification and life cycle
If you see a turtle swimming in your pond or resting on the bottom with its head above water, there is a good chance that it is a snapping turtle.
They are characterized by a long, toothed tail, large head and neck, and relatively small shell compared to other turtles. The head is dominated by a prominent curved jaw. Their especially long necks and jaws allow them to easily bite and catch prey, but it also makes them more difficult to catch and carry.
Large snappers often have algae growing on the top of their shell, especially in the mid to late summer.
Snapping turtles become more visible in May and June when they make a brief appearance on land to lay eggs. During their time on land, snapping turtles should be avoided if possible.
They are most uncomfortable and prone to aggression when they are out of water — even known to hiss loudly at any perceived threat.
If you must handle a snapping turtle (perhaps to move one from imminent danger on a road), the safest method to avoid a bite is to pick them up from their back legs. But be careful of their clawed feet which can be quite sharp, especially on larger turtles.
Females deposit a few dozen eggs in a shallow nest in loose soil or vegetation sometimes at quite a distance from the closest pond or stream. Their nesting success is often quite low because many eggs are ultimately lost to predators like skunks or other mammals.
Hatchlings appear in mid-summer, about two to three months after the eggs are laid.
Like most turtles, snapping turtles grow slowly but they do represent the largest turtle species in Pennsylvania often approaching 40 or 50 pounds in old age. Larger turtles are usually more than 20 years old with some approaching 50 years old.
Old snappers can be quite scary in appearance with a large, hooked jaw like the one pictured here.
Through the summer you are likely to see them swimming or floating in the pond or sitting quietly in shallow water on the pond bottom. Snapping turtles prefer ponds to streams, especially if the pond has lots of tasty aquatic plants and soft bottom sediments or “muck.”
They are more active at night but are commonly seen during the day. During the winter, snapping turtles hibernate under water, usually in the bottom sediment of ponds, lakes, or streams or under nearby vegetation or mud.
Villain, nuisance or just plain misunderstood? While some pond owners enjoy watching snapping turtles, many consider them a nuisance.
Penn State Extension surveys of pond owners over the past few decades have found that 42% complain of at least one nuisance wildlife species. The most common complaints are for Canada geese and muskrats with snapping turtles among the top five species.
Many pond owners fear snapping turtles, but only a handful in the Penn State surveys had any personal knowledge of a person being bitten by a snapping turtle.
In some cases, this fear may be perceived from the angry appearance of their large, curved jaws. In others, it may come from observing a snapping turtle catching and/or consuming fish or wildlife.
But many pond owners fail to understand the vital role that snappers play in the pond food web and ecosystem. They are opportunistic eaters with a varied diet that is dominated by aquatic plants but also includes dead or dying fish, organic debris, insects and small animals.
They are probably most notorious for their ability to catch and consume domestic or wild waterfowl like Canada geese although this is a minor part of their diet.
They will occasionally eat a healthy fish, but they are unlikely to have enough of a detrimental impact to the overall fishery to warrant the disdain give to them by some fishermen.
While snapping turtles will aggressively protect themselves on land where they are slow and more vulnerable, they tend to avoid humans while in the water, usually diving below the water surface for escape and cover of the bottom sediments and weeds.
Snapping turtle control
While snapping turtles are valued for their ability to keep ponds clean, there are many instances where pond owners seek to control their population.
Their relative abundance allows for liberal harvest regulations in Pennsylvania. Their meat is also sought after for snapper soup and is even commercially sold to some restaurants or other vendors.
Commercial sale of snapping turtle meat requires a Commercial Turtle Permit through the PA Fish and Boat Commission. Snapping turtle meat is considered tasty by many, but it is important to remove as much fat as possible.
The fat adds a very poor taste and is also more likely to accumulate pollutants from the turtle’s habitat. The Pennsylvania Fish and Boat Commission considers snapping turtle meat to be safe consume if fat and internal organs are removed.
In Pennsylvania, a fishing license is required to harvest snapping turtles. Up to 15 can be legally harvested daily between July 1 through Oct. 31.
Most pond owners use turtle hooks mandated as a hook that is at least 3.5 inches long with at least one inch between the tip and shank baited with various types of meat.
This hook design prevents other types of protected or endangered turtles from being mistakenly caught. Turtle hooks should be connected to heavy monofilament line or wire. Turtles can also be caught with setlines, turtle traps, or other devices but these must be tagged with contact information for the owner.
These devices must be designed to allow other species of turtles to escape or be released.
The specific requirements and regulations for harvesting snapping turtles are explained at the Pennsylvania Fish and Boat Commission website. While snapping turtles can look and act the part of a pond villain, consider the important role they play in the overall health of your pond or lake before you decide to remove them.
In ponds where they have become too abundant or interfere with other pond uses, be sure to follow state regulations when harvesting snapping turtles.
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