A nesting tradition for the ages

Published 7:33 pm Tuesday, May 17, 2016

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    Scientists generally agree that 66 million years ago (give or take a few million), a huge comet or asteroid slammed into the earth, forever changing the planet.

    The rulers of the world back then were dinosaurs, and they were clearly at the top of the food chain. Few things got in their way. But the massive climate change brought about by that cataclysmic collision did. It killed a large portion of the dinosaur population outright and left an earth uninhabitable by the rest. And so, the dinosaurs quickly became extinct.

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    A few animal species survived the collision. Crocodiles survived and, with a bit of adaptation, have lived among an evolving planet ever since. And, so did some turtles.


    Turtles did evolve, but slowly, and about 40 million years ago, one branch of the turtle family became what we know today as the common snapping turtle.

    And ever since then, when the sun climbs higher into the sky, female snapping turtles have crawled up out of the streams and ponds that they call home and have gone searching for a warm, sandy plot of soil where they can lay their eggs.

    These large reptiles will dig a hole in the sandy high ground using their hind legs, lay a couple of dozen or more eggs, and then re-cover the site so that most folks won’t even notice they’ve been there. The incubation period can be anywhere from nine to 18 weeks, depending on the warmth of the soil. Then, if a skunk, raccoon, coyote or other hungry hunter hasn’t found the eggs and eaten them, little snappers may hatch. These mini-chompers then have to scurry downhill, instinctively looking for water and mud, before a predator finds them and ends their travel early.

    That tradition is a part of the spring ritual here in Southeast Virginia, as it has been for thousands — perhaps million? — of years. The ocean has come and gone and the shoreline with it. Streams form, grow, shrink and the land otherwise changes. But spring after spring, a reliable constant is the female snapping turtle looking for a warm, sunny spot.

    That’s why you see these big — some would say ugly — beasts lumbering across highways and subdivision yards this time of year. They won’t bother you, but I would advise giving them a wide berth because they don’t want to be bothered. They’re just following nature’s plan.

    Some people try to be helpful, picking up snappers to get them out of highway traffic or away from some other danger. My advice is don’t. Being bitten by an angry snapper cannot be fun.

    And besides, they’ve survived worse than us. In fact, I think the odds are that, when we have finally managed to mess up the earth’s sufficiently to make it uninhabitable for homo sapiens, these ancient residents of our planet will still be crawling out of the ooze every spring, looking for that warm, sunny spot where another generation of snapping turtles will begin life.