Ames Free Library

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A Glimpse of Nature - Snapping Turtle

See what’s happening on the grounds of the Ames Free Library or nearby areas with “A Glimpse of Nature.”  Offered by Lorraine Rubinacci, the library's resident naturalist, this weekly photo blog is a gentle reminder to enjoy the wonders that surround us.


A Glimpse of Nature - "Snapping Turtle"

Two weeks ago I encountered an animated group of girls at Queset Garden’s reflecting pool.  I watched the excited kids, who were gathered at the edge and holding sticks, before I approached and was shown the cause:  a small Snapping Turtle that was at the bottom of the pool.   It seems that the turtle, first discovered on a walkway, had made its way to the pool (independently?), and the girls were afraid it would drown.  While the animal may not have required rescuing, this was a perfect teachable moment.  I scooped up the small creature, just a few inches long, and began my lesson on turtle anatomy and behavior.  Then, to minimize the turtle’s stress, we placed it under a nearby shrub. 

Being as excited as the kids and totally absorbed in the moment, I forgot to snap a photo with the camera I was carrying!  By the time the children heeded their parents’ call, the turtle had disappeared.  Its shell was about two inches long, augmented by a long neck and tail, similar in appearance to this one:

Snapping Turtle at Trustom Pond National Wildlife Refuge

U. S. Fish and Wildlife Service - Northeast Region, Public domain


My colleague had spotted a turtle at the fountain a couple of weeks earlier, perhaps the same individual.  June is, indeed, the time when people most often see turtles on the move, for it is when aquatic turtles like the Common Snapping Turtle seek out nesting sites.  Our specimen was, of course, too young to breed, but late May and June is when adult females return to sunny, well-drained spots to lay their eggs.

 The next day I saw this giant adult in shallow water near my home:

Large Snapping Turtle Covered in Algae, Pembroke


Oval in shape and covered in algae, it was, at first, difficult to distinguish from a large rock...

...until it moved its head.  This impressive individual, which was in the 20-inch range, was doing what snappers usually do:  sitting quietly on the pond’s muddy bottom, being warmed by the sun and, perhaps, waiting for some food to pass by.  This species is the largest freshwater turtle in New England.  It has claws, a sharp beak, and a spiky tail -- it looks scary.  In the water, where it is well protected, the snapping turtle is rather docile.  On land, where we see them most clearly, they are much more vulnerable and defensive. One look at their lower shell, the plastron, explains why:  it is so small that it can’t protect the animal's head and limbs.  Out of the water, where it has also lost its camouflage and some of its agility, it hisses and bites.

Finding turtle eggs is easy, at least the shells, that is.  A large percentage of turtle eggs are predated by skunks, raccoons, foxes, and other animals.  Here are the remains of some of those white, ping pong balls after the feast.

Predated Turtle Eggs, Halifax

Snappers have overcome this challenge by living long lives and laying many eggs each year, a strategy that has worked since before the dinosaurs.  Yet they are no match for motor vehicles, what the Massachusetts Division of Fisheries and Wildlife calls “the chief threat to the continued survival of adult turtles.”  Adult females heading to their nesting sites are especially vulnerable, as the site might be as far as a mile from their watery home. Thus I urge you to drive cautiously, to share the road.  When possible, advocate for safe passageways for animals and crossing signs.  If you can safely assist a turtle to cross a road, always move it “in the direction the turtle was heading.”

Given that Snapping Turtle eggs hatch in about 90 days, you may see tiny turtles moving towards the water in September.  Though they’ll be even harder to spot on roads, you’ll be expecting them.

At the Library

Field Guide to the Amphibians and Reptiles of Massachusetts

by Peter G. Mirick et al.

Box Turtle at Long Pond

by  William T. George & Lindsay Barrett George

A Guide to Amphibians and Reptiles

by Thomas F. Tyning

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