At this time of year, snapping turtle hatchlings begin to emerge from their nests on land and make their way to water. We recently found this little one making its way to the pond at Nature Boardwalk at Lincoln Park Zoo. Our pond offers good snapping turtle habitat because it has a muddy bottom and lots of emergent and aquatic vegetation around the edges, which the species likes.
This juvenile’s carapace (top shell) was only about an inch long. It has a lot of growing to do, as adults can have carapaces of up to about 19 inches in length. Turtles are long-lived creatures, though; it’s estimated that snapping turtles in the wild can live to be about 30 years old.
As their name indicates, snapping turtles can be very defensive and will use their powerful bite if approached on land. If you’ve ever seen an adult snapping turtle out of the water, it’s clear why they fight back if threatened rather than attempt to get away: on land they are remarkably, ponderously slow.
Snapping turtles have very long tails and small, cross-shaped plastrons, which you can see in the photo below. They also have long necks and will stretch their neck out to try and bite you if you aren’t careful. You can see this little turtle stretching its neck out in the picture where I’m holding it!
Unlike many other species of turtles, the plastron (underside shell) of snapping turtles is quite small. Accordingly, these turtles can’t pull their limbs all the way into their shell to protect themselves. It’s a different story in the water, where these strong swimmers are much more at ease. In most cases, they just swim away if approached by a human in the water.
Snapping turtles eat a varied, omnivorous diet containing everything from aquatic vegetation to small birds (when they can catch them). The little ones may look lost walking around on land, but they’re on a mission to get to the water. If you see them walking, it’s best to let them be on their wild way.