SNAPPING TURTLES ON LAND & IN THE WATER
Snapping Turtles and Swimming Snapping turtles being the largest turtle species native to Ontario both fascinate people because of their dinosaur like appearance and unnerve some people due to their size and demeanor.
Over the years snapping turtles have suffered many injustices because people have not taken the time to learn key facts about them. This has lead to snapping turtle behavior often being misinterpreted. The name this turtle species was assigned also has not helped, 'snapping turtle' has come to define them and they are about so much more. Yes, snapping turtles are known to snap, scratch and even cause a flesh wound if their beak pierces the skin but when left alone, snapping turtles do in fact have a very gentle nature. This is most apparent when observed from a distance or they are in the water.
Snapping Turtles On Land
On land snapping turtles feel incredibly vulnerable. They have the disadvantage of a small under shell (plastron) that prevents them from being able to pull their limbs into their shell to protect themselves when they feel threatened like most other turtle species are able to do. As a result snapping turtles when on land, not surprisingly, shift to a protective mode that includes snapping.
Snapping turtles spend 90% of their time in the water. If they leave the water it is because they are on a mission that could include; moving to a different habitat because of the time of year, habitat threats or changes, food availability, mating, nesting or basking. Snapping turtles like all turtles want to be left alone to do what it is they have set out to do.
In the case of a snapping turtle that feels threatened they will assuredly snap and if you put your fingers or any other fleshy parts in front of their face or within the reach of their long neck they will clamp on and pierce the flesh with their sharp beak. Turtles lack teeth, but the cutting edge of the beak accompanied by their strong jaw is a formidable biting tool. An adult snapping turtle's jaw strength has been measured at between 208 and 226 Newtons of force. By comparison, a humans average bite force is between 300 and 700 Newtons when we bite with our molars. Snapping turtles are capable of inflicting a painful bite, but they cannot snap a broomstick in half.
Common snapping turtles respond as they do because they are scared and/or have been cornered or threatened. Their behavior is them looking out for themselves and letting us know to leave them alone. It is important to remember that when we approach a snapping turtle for any reason, even if well intended such as to assist the turtle across a road, we know we are there to help the turtle they do not know this and perceive us as a large menacing predator.
If you think about it a snapping turtle or any animal in the wild reverting to a 'self preservation' response as the result of feeling threatened is completely understandable. In a situation where any of us feel threatened we would react and be looking to protect ourselves. The difference being we have words available to us whereas turtles and other animals do not.
Snapping Turtles In Water
In the water snapping turtles are more at home and feel far less vulnerable. Although highly aquatic they are moderate swimmers and often opt to simply walk on the bottom of the body of water they are situated in. Their demeanor in water is passive and does not include snapping. Some may at times be curious and have been known to swim up to boats, docks or near someone that may be in the water and even bump people. They are as curious about us as we are about them and at times this may cause a snapping turtle to swim a little too close for our comfort level. Most often though when met with a potential encounter with a human in the water snapping turtles are more apt to make a swift exit then hang around.
They spend a lot of time underwater foraging for carrion (dead plant and animal matter). The algae growing on their shell (carapace) is a testament to that fact. Snapping turtles are the janitors of the lakes and wetlands and do us a great service by cleaning the waterways. Without carrion getting recycled in this way, our wetlands and waterways would be overrun with excessive amounts of bacteria. Healthy turtle populations are essential for these reasons and so many more.
Snapping Turtle Encounters
Accounts that surface on occasion about encounters ending up with someone sustaining a flesh would are likely the result of one of the following;
(1) Someone deliberately antagonizing/provoking a snapping turtle by basically getting into their personal space, cornering, prodding with a stick, etc.
(2) A snapping turtle being accidentally stepped on and/or startled on land or in the water.
(3) Someone fishing and accidentally ending up with a turtle getting hooked on the line or in a net. If hands are put anywhere near a snapping turtle perhaps trying to free them from a hook or net if not handled carefully a bite is the most probably outcome.
Should anyone accidentally hook a snapping turtle please call the Ontario Turtle Conservation Centre, home to Ontario's turtle hospital at 705-741-5000. Do not cut the line and put the turtle back into the water. The OTCC offers medical care at no charge for turtle species native to Ontario and can arrange transportation to get the turtle to the hospital from anywhere in Ontario.
(4) If someone routinely feeds a snapping turtle this messes them up and changes their perception of humans. If fed they will thereafter equate humans with food. Please don't ever feed snapping turtles in the wild they will want food on their schedule and this could prompt snapping turtles to get too close for comfort looking to be fed. This could set the scene for an unwanted interaction.
(5) Using live fish bait such as dead fish is attractive to snapping turtles. In general, the 'stinkier' your bait, the more interested turtles which may result in turtle interactions.
(6) There is confusion at times on the internet with people assuming the alligator snapping turtle located in the USA and common snapping turtles that inhabit Ontario are one in the same. The alligator snapping turtle is much larger with records of some reaching 220 lbs. The largest snapping turtle in Ontario we have encountered was 36 lbs. The alligator snapping turtle is known to have a vicious bite. Despite this they are not known to attack humans unprovoked.
A Snapping Turtles Perspective Accounts that surface on occasion about encounters ending up with someone being bit while in the water are rare but not unheard of possible as the result of the following; Snapping turtles encounters with people in the water present a dynamic not often considered that may come down to size. Whereas most often when met with a human encounter a snapping turtle observes our 'full body size' as such they are more apt to make a swift exit then hang around.
Observing toes or fingers dangling off a dock may be perceived underwater by a snapping turtle as chubby worms. Dangles toes is off the dock is not recommended because from beneath the water's surface a snapping turtle will only see something wiggling that they may think is chubby worms or something edible. Curiosity and the prospect of a favored snack may cause them to check out the wiggly bits. They do like worms and as they are only see the part of the person dangling beneath the water they cannot be blamed for being enticed. Wearing water shoes is best if dangling your feet off a dock.
Water shoes are recommended for this reason and also because of items discarded in lakes and other water bodies such as glass bottles. A snapping turtle swimming underwater viewing the leg of someone perhaps standing in the water is seeing a 'part' of a person. Most often not the case but on occasion this may prompt a snapping turtle to investigate and clamp on. Not in the sense of an attack but a snapping turtle checking out a possible source of food. If a snapping turtle does this being uninterested in eating people they will quickly release the leg. It is more like spitting the leg out. However, with the turtle’s beak piercing the skin and causing a flesh wound this behavior has at times been interpreted as an attack. Hysteria can at times ensue and a one sided account take on a life of its own especially if social media is involved. It is of course unfortunate for this to happen and very seldom the case. In five years we have had one such incident reported to us.
Although we view the lakes and other water bodies as being there for us they are the habitat of turtles and a good many other aquatic animals that live by instinctive behavior. The most important point to note is that snapping turtles are 'NOT' roaming on land or swimming around looking for humans to attack, eat or bite. When we are in the water whether it be swimming, wading, fishing or boating remember we are in their habitat and encounters are entirely possible. Like many wildlife species if you leave them alone, they will leave you alone. If they feel threatened, however, they will react and use their instinctive ways to ward off potential threats.
Observe and respect wildlife from a distance. If we choose to interact that could be misinterpreted by wildlife the consequences of such an encounter are down to us and not the animal. If an animal is in distress and you want to help please do so in a manner that ensures your safety and the animals.
If you have any questions regarding this subject or other turtle related matters please do not hesitate to contact Think Turtle Conservation Initiative at 647-606-9537 (phone/text) or e-mail email@example.com. Thank you for looking out for Ontario's species at risk!