Drawing by Robert Savannah, USFWS
Snapping Turtles are not native to California. In fact they are illegal here. California Fish & Game regulations specifically forbid possession or release of any genus or species of snapping turtle. However, they keep turning up in our lakes and streams, sometimes even walking down the street. Because they are illegal (and a threat to native fauna), Fish & Game have a somewhat permanent solution to snappers when captured. When possible CTTC will adopt the otherwise condemned chelonians to knowledgeable people out of state. Because I find these creatures so fascinating I have been involved in the CTTC Snapper Relocation Program for the last few years. Basically I hold them until I can find a willing adopter out of state then make arrangements to have them airlifted to safety! More about the Snapper program later.
There are two genera of snapping turtles each with a single species, Macroclemys temminckii and Chelydra serpentina. The Alligator and Common Snapping Turtles respectively. I will confine this article to Common Snapping Turtles. My Latin interpretation of the name Chelydra serpentina is Serpent Turtle (surprise!). This is undoubtedly due to their long neck and fast strike capability. There are 4 subspecies recognized by both Pritchard and Iverson. I've had at least two if not three of the subspecies pass though my hands and they all seem to have similar characteristics (aggressive, mean and dangerous), so I will not make distinctions between subspecies here. I don't want to paint the wrong picture because these are truly amazing (and beautiful) creatures, but they are certainly dangerous to handle, so treat them with respect if you ever have to handle one.
Common Snapping Turtles have the largest distribution of any turtle in North America. They range from the Rockies east through Southern Canada and all of the US, through Mexico, Central America and into South America as far south as Ecuador, (west of the Andes). Their range is interrupted in a few places south of the border. The four subspecies are distributed geographically through this range.
Common Snappers have an oval shaped carapace that widens a bit toward the back where it is strongly serrated. Coloration of the carapace varies greatly from tan/brown to olive to almost black. I have seen beautiful caramel colored striations on light colored shells that rivaled the beautiful patterns seen on the plastrons of some Asian Spiny Leaf Turtles. The carapace has three keels running longitudinally. The keels are accentuated with knobs or tubercles under each scute. The keels and knobs' size varies by subspecies but all smooth out or wear out with age. Their skin on top is brown to dark brown often with many tubercles on the legs, neck and tail. The plastron is very reduced as in musk turtles with sort of a cross shape. It is light in coloration (yellowish) compared to the carapace. The bridge is very narrow. The skin underneath is light also being yellowish or cream colored. Snappers have large heads with two barbels on the chin. They have very long tails that are covered with three rows of plate like tubercles that remind me of the growths on Stegosaurus. No significant sexual dimorphism has been noted. They all can emit secretions that generate a strong musk turtle-like odor when threatened or aroused.
Snapping Turtles inhabit all bodies of water without too much discrimination. There may be some slight preference for muddy bottoms within which they can hibernate and/or lie in ambush for unsuspecting prey much like Soft Shelled Turtles. They are very cold tolerant and much of the literature contains references to observations of snapping turtle movements under iced up lakes, rivers or streams! They are a highly aquatic species that basks only occasionally in the southern portion of its range and somewhat more in the northern sections. They spend most of their time on the bottom, but do occasionally make long overland journeys.
Snapping turtles are not what I would classify as picky eaters. In the wild they eat just about everything they can catch, including but not limited to: fish, frogs, crabs, snails, insects, carrion, vegetable matter, water fowl and small reptiles and mammals. This includes other snapping turtles and snakes! My experience with them in captivity supports this fully. They are great for disposal of whatever our cats drag in the house! It is interesting to note that wild caught or deceased snappers have been found with as much as 40%-50% vegetable matter in their stomachs. The young pursue their prey with more vigor (or wasted energy) than adults, which spend more time lying in ambush for innocent prey. As do other aquatic turtles, snappers consume small prey whole and tear larger animals to pieces with their strong claws. They capture prey with a blindingly quick thrust and pharyngeal expansion very similar to Snake Necked and Side Necked Turtles. Adults will drag live prey into the water to drown, (this includes water fowl), which can be mildly hazardous to the snapper due to the clawing and biting done by the prey. Snappers have also been observed eating on land, though I suspect this is a rare occurrence.