Snappers persevere

Published 5:25 pm Tuesday, September 17, 2019

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The snapping turtles have hatched. I parked the car at home one day last week and almost stepped on one of the little prehistoric creatures. Its shell was a bit more than an inch long. The little fellow (or girl. I can’t tell their sex even when they’re grown) was clearly lost, heading uphill toward the house.

I put him on the backside of the hill leading to the Pagan and wished him well. Then, the next day, there was one in the swimming pool — possibly the same young’n, still trying to get out of the yard.

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Several months ago, I confronted a full-grown snapper near my shop. It was probably a she, headed back to the swamp after laying eggs. Could’ve been mama of the little ones I later found. One or more come up into the yard every year to perpetuate the species and sometimes we get lucky and see their offspring, as I did this time.

I hope they make it to the creeks and swamps where they will try and evade predators until they are big enough to become one.

I’ve always had a healthy respect for snappers. I believed every word of the old country wisdom that if a snapping turtled bit you, he wouldn’t turn loose until it thundered. In time, I began to think that probably wasn’t true, but having poked a stick at a few in my younger days, I learned that they do indeed have jaws like a steel trap, and you wouldn’t want them around your pinky.

In fact, folks used to say you could identify a turtler (someone who traps snappers) because he would generally be missing a finger or two. Hurts just to think about it.

Whatever the lore, these denizens of swamps, ponds and creeks have an amazing history that I’ve come to appreciate more fully over the years. The ancestors of these creatures was a turtle that inhabited the planet about 215 million years ago, well before the dinosaurs evolved into rulers of the realm. When a monster asteroid struck the earth and ended the dinosaurs’ reign, a few animals survived, among them the turtles.

Like the tortoise racing the hair, turtles have been slow but steady ever since. They have not only survived, but have flourished as other species came and went. And this despite a really precarious life cycle that begins when mature females mate each spring. They then crawl up out of the swamp (that’s local swamps, not Washington), lay two to four dozen eggs and bury them in a sandy, sunny spot.

Coyotes, foxes, raccoons and a host of other predators love to find and eat snapper eggs and do so with amazing regularity. If the eggs survive and hatch, tiny turtles crawl out of the dirt and head for low land and water. If they make it, their chances of survival improve dramatically.

Leave it to modern man, though, to threaten the snapper. According to a fascinating article in the September issue of Virginia Wildlife, the state’s snapper population has declined sharply in recent years due to overharvesting. Virginians don’t eat that much turtle soup, but it appears the Chinese do, and in what seems an odd contribution in our effort to balance our trade deficit with that Asian economic giant, we’re shipping a bunch of turtle meat to China.

Scientists at the Virginia Department of Game and Inland Fisheries have been watching the decline in snapper population and believe it is approaching a critical level from which snappers will find it hard to recover. As a result, the state this year imposed strict limits on who can obtain a turtler’s license, the size of turtles they can take and and the number of traps they will be allowed.

This is not an unusual set of circumstances. In the late 1800s, populations of waterfowl were decimated by Chesapeake Bay “market gunners,” who found the wildlife in their creeks and marshes desirable for the taste buds of the wealthy, and an easy source of needed cash.

Add to overharvesting the loss of habitat for many species and you have a pretty clear picture of what can happen to a species. The snapper has so far adapted to a changing habitat, but the overharvesting was getting ahead of nature.

I appreciate Virginias Wildlife highlighting this latest non-game wildlife issue. The story by wildlife writer Jo Ann Abell is interesting reading.