Snapping Turtle – Chelydra serpentina

Snapping turtles show up in the strangest places. We commonly get calls about snapping turtles under docks, in windows wells, in gardens and even “at my front door.” We say “Lucky you!”

The Snapping turtle is the largest freshwater turtle native to Ontario. It has a round flat shell with serrated edges at the rear. The legs are massive. The feet are webbed and have long sharp claws. The tail is long with a row of “spikes” on the top lending a prehistoric look.

Snapping turtles are semi-aquatic and both males and females often travel long distances over land to nest, search for good feeding sites, and look for mates. The head and jaws are huge and capable of delivering a powerful bite and a fast strike with the help of the long neck. They have a small belly plate (or plastron) leaving a lot of skin exposed. This lack of protection accounts for the defensive disposition when on dry land. If you leave them alone, they will leave you alone! Despite all the stories about them, the Common Snapping turtle doesn’t have a bite force strong enough to “take off a finger”. It would of course be painful, and likely bleed – but nothing like the exaggerated myths that are commonly shared.

The snapper is in decline but still present in strong numbers in many locations. It was listed as species of “Special Concern” under Ontario’s Endangered Species Act in 2008. Until the spring of 2017, it was still legal to hunt snapping turtles in Ontario. Turtles tend to have a life history that is very different than most mammals and birds and they rely on almost zero adult mortality to maintain healthy population numbers. Snapping turtles are  no exception and this long-lived species (thought to have 100 year or more life spans) also is very slow to mature (upwards of 20 years to reach sexual maturity) and has very low survival of eggs and hatchlings.  In fact, it is estimated that it takes about 1500 eggs, and 59 years to even have a chance of replacing themselves in their population. As a result of this life history, having the extra threat of hunting on top of their other threats, did not make sound scientific sense. As a result, the law was changed in the spring of 2017, and it is now illegal to hunt this species in any number. This was strongly supported by the public, and implemented by the Minister of Natural Resources and Forestry, the Honorable Kathryn McGarry.

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