Don’t mess with snapping turtles

Published 5:08 pm Tuesday, May 7, 2019

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A few things we learned as kids stuck. Don’t play with copperheads, look carefully under boards for black widows, and respect a snapping turtle.

I thought about the latter last spring when, driving down the bypass, I stopped for a young lady who was walking out into the road. A large snapping turtle was making its way across the asphalt and she was determined the turtle would live to see another day.

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She walked up to that turtle, picked it up (wisely, from behind) and delivered it to the side of the road. Good for her. But I wouldn’t advise anybody to try it unless you know a whole lot about the defensive abilities of snapping turtles.

I’ve always been fascinated by these creatures to which nature bestowed mean looks and a meaner disposition. Like most country kids, I believed what I heard about snappers. If one bit you, according to country lore, he wouldn’t turn loose until it thundered. Best to not get bitten during a drought.

Like most country legends, it was based on truth. A snapping turtle’s defense is its aggressive behavior, especially when on land. Because it can’t move fast, it will turn and challenge any threat, including humans. It will heave up on its legs and, according to the Virginia Living Museum in Newport News, can lunge more than half its length ahead, mouth open, and land a bone-crushing bite. And once it grabs you, don’t expect it to turn loose. Turtlers knew the snapper well, and it was not uncommon for them to have a mangled finger or two.

If you respect the snapper, though, there’s no reason to fear them. They can’t outrun you, and can provide an intriguing show while they’re on high ground, as they soon will be, because May and June are egg-laying season for snappers and other turtles. The spring snapper migration to high ground will thus be underway soon, if it hasn’t already started.

I haven’t found it in any of the literature I looked through, but after watching them for years, I’m convinced that female snapping turtles return to the same high ground location year after year to lay their eggs. We have at least one visit us each year, laying eggs on the sunny and sandy edge of a floor bed.

What happens then is pretty amazing. The eggs take about two and a half to three months to hatch, depending on the temperature, so little snappers don’t emerge until August or September. In the meantime, according to information from the Living Museum, the sex of snappers-to-be is determined after the eggs are laid. If the eggs stay relatively cool, the turtles will all be female, a little warmer and they’ll all be male. If they heat up even more, then they’ll all be female.

The parenting females return to the swamp or creek after laying their eggs, so their offspring are on their own when they’re born, and live a pretty precarious life until they grow a bit. If they make it to adulthood, however, snapping turtles can live for half a century, and possibly longer. And incidentally, they not only live a long time, but have lived a long time as a species. In fact, they are the world’s oldest reptile, first showing up about 185 million years ago. They’ve seen a lot of springs come and go.

Snapping turtles are considered a nuisance by some who feel they eat more than their share of baby ducks and geese which hatch in the swamps or ponds they inhabit. And they are deadly, if slow, hunters, able to stick their nose and eyes barely above water to breathe and watch for prey.

Those who would thin the population plus those who trap turtles for a dwindling turtle soup market today have to deal with limited regulations in Virginia. According to Virginia Dixon Smith of the Department of Game and Inland Fisheries, those who want to shoot turtles must have a hunting license; those who would catch them with bated lines need a fishing license, and those who would trap them need a trapping license.

And according to some recent scientific research, turtles may absorb toxic chemicals in their flesh, which could bring into question the desirability of eating turtle soup as a regular part of your diet.

EDITOR’S NOTE: This “Short Rows” column was published on May 15, 2002. It remains a valid reminder for May each year