Chelydra serpentina sp.
Common snapping turtles (AKA snappers) are large turtles that seem to be ubiquitous with slow moving freshwater throughout much of North America. Easily identified, this impressive Chelonian sports a large, smooth carapace and an incomplete plastron (it forms a cross-like shape). For this reason, the snapping turtle cannot withdraw its head into its shell like other turtles.
Seemingly to compensate for this lack of ability, snapping turtles are equipped with a large, heavily keeled tail, large, powerful limbs that terminate with rather impressive claws that are used to dig and eviscerate prey.
Most famously, snapping turtles have a long neck and comparatively large head that boasts one of the most impressive beaks of any Chelonian. Colors typically are an assortment of browns and grays, with some black fleckings. In both the wild and in culture, however, many different color varieties occur. A few of these morphs include albino (white to yellowish skin and shell with red eyes), hypomelanistic (same as albino, just with dark eyes); high-orange (typically a lot of orange on the belly and limbs), melanistic (overall very dark to black coloration) and quite few others.
Common snapping turtles have a massive natural range, encompassing nearly all of the eastern and northern United States west to the rocky mountains, southern Canada, with populations in south Georgia and Florida, as well as the Veracruz region in Mexico south to Honduras, and again another population from Honduras through Central America down the West coast of South America to Ecuador.
Due to this huge range, several subspecies have been proposed, with only two being accepted; they are as follows:
Chelydra serpentina serpentina –US and Canada, except in south Georgia and Florida (accepted)
Chelydra s. osceola—south Georgia and Florida (accepted—common name FL snapping turtle)
Chelydra s. rossignoni—Mexico to Honduras (disputed—commonly Mexican snapping turtle)
Chelydra s. acutirostris—Honduras to Ecuador (disputed—commonly Ecuadorian snapping turtle)
Slow moving streams, creeks, and rivers as well as still ponds and reservoirs. Never found far from water, they seem to prefer areas with heavy underwater obstructions under which to hide, with a silty bottom. Rarely found in areas with water depths of less than 2’ as adults, juveniles tend to be more flexible in regards to water depth.
As adults, they can be as large as 19” across the shell and weigh upwards of 80 pounds. Typically, however, they approach 15” in length and weigh 40-60 pounds.
Famously foul-tempered. These turtles are known to bite readily, and due to their large size and long neck they should be handled with the utmost care and respect. They are capable of removing digits from an unwary keepers’ hand.
Smaller specimens may be picked up by the sides of the shell, with larger individuals being lifted from the lower ¼ of the shell. Never lift by the tail, as this can cause vertebral damage, and larger individuals have quite a reach—hence handling by the lowest ¼ of the shell.
These turtles can live quite some time. 50 year old specimens are not unheard of, with 100+ year lifespans being quite possible.
Cage size and setup:
Snapping turtles are nearly fully aquatic, rarely leaving the water; except occasionally to bask and in the case of females, to lay eggs. As such, the keeper should provide a nearly all water enclosure, with a minimal land area with a basking spot placed over it. Powerful water filtration should be used, as these turtles are quite messy. I recommend a filtering capacity of at least 10x the volume of the water. Even then, changing out at least 25% of the water weekly is recommended.
Heating the water is unnecessary, as these turtles can tolerate a massive range of temperature. As for enclosure size, I recommend the largest enclosure you can afford to start with—any glass fish tank larger than 10 gallons will house a hatchling, with aquaria being adequate for a while. Once the animal hits the 7-8 inch mark, however; I feel as though some sort of alternate caging is prudent—such as livestock stock tanks, ponds, water storage tanks, etc. I would not house an adult in an enclosure any less than 6’x4’x3’ (LxWxH). Water depth should be approximately 1-1.5x the carapace length of the turtle—which enables the turtle to simply lift its’ head up to get a breath.
Cage décor should be kept simple to simplify maintenance.
A few braches and stones arranged to create underwater hides should be adequate; with substrate being a personal choice—I feel that it creates unnecessary complications when it comes time to clean. However, aquarium gravel and sand make suitable substrata; just exercise caution to not jam up your filter with substrate.
Temperatures: As mentioned, snapping turtles have quite a tolerance when it comes to temperature. I have personally witnessed individuals walking under the ice of frozen ponds!
Now, these are not ideal conditions; in captivity we should strive to keep water temperatures between 60-80 degrees fahrenheit, except when brumating. Any lower and the turtle will cease to feed, any higher and you risk heat exhaustion. Basking areas should be around 90-95 degrees in summer.
I feel it is important to provide seasonal temp cycles with snapping turtles, with a winter brumation being employed in a similar manner to many colubrid snakes—45-60 degree temperatures for a few months with no food during this time. Also, stop feeding for a week or so before this drop to ensure food has passed from the gut and does not rot while the animal shuts down the gastrointestinal tract.
Food: A snapping turtles’ favorite subject! In a word, snapping turtles eat meat. Yes, some vegetable manner is taken from time to time, but the vast overall majority of the diet is animal based. They will devour any animal protein they can—fish, crawfish, worms, insects, carrion, other turtles, frogs, snakes, lizards, waterfowl, etc.
In captivity, this usually translates into feeder fish, earthworms, cooked chicken & beef, feeder rodents, feeder chicks and quail, as well as shellfish. Try to avoid feeder comets, they use a lot of copper-based meds on these guys that can cause a toxicity in turtles when eaten in large quantities, not to mention they are a famous reservoir of internal parasites. Also, the tissues of these fish contain a large amount of the enzyme thiaminase, which breaks down thiamin, AKA vitamin B1; which can cause nutritional deficiences. Commercial turtle diet is also eaten, but I recommend against it due to the HUGE appetites these turtles have—even a 7” specimen could eat a whole can of the stuff, and that will get pricey quick. An economical alternative to turtle pellets could be trout pellets, as nutritionally, they seem pretty similar to turtle pellets. However, I have never raised a turtle on trout pellets and cannot vouch for the ability to replace turtle pellets with trout pellets and still raise a healthy, perfectly shelled specimen. Whole animals are preferred, as they are more complete nutritionally, and frankly are what the animal eats anyway. Many herp keepers, myself included, like to have a snapper around to eat any uneaten rodents that their snakes did not consume to avoid wasting rodents. Feed small (6” and under) turtles daily or every other day, as much as they can consume in a few minutes; while larger individuals need only eat 1-3 times a week, depending on the size of the meal.
Breeding: Obviously, one must first determine whether or not they have a pair of turtles. Males are easily distinguished from females by their longer tail with the vent positioned further down the tail than in females. After that, breeding is rather simple and straightforward.
First, keep the sexes separate except to breed. I cannot emphasize a solitary existence for snapping turtles enough. They will harm, even kill any roommates they have, including their own species. Brumate your pair as instructed above for approximately 2-3 months, then warm them up, give a small meal and introduce the male to the females’ enclosure. Breeding should be nearly immediate, if not, separate, wait a couple of days and try again.
When the couple is done, separate them, wait a day or two, and repeat process. Do this until there is no longer any interest in breeding, as multiple copulations will increase your odds of success. At this time, it is a good idea to have an egg-laying enclosure for your female—this can be as simple as an alternate enclosure that is 50/50 water and land, with a soil substrate for the land portion at least 8” deep.
When she is ready (usually 30-40 days or so), she will dig a nest and deposit her eggs. Once this happens, you may return her to her normal enclosure, but keep an eye on her weight. Significant, rapid weight gain may indicate another clutch is on the way—thereby necessitating moving her again. Now, I like to keep things simple, so my female snapping turtles are kept in these egg-laying enclosures all the time for the sake of convenience, they are just size-adjusted to provide ample water space.
Once she lays her eggs, she will abandon the nest, and you need to dig up those eggs and incubate them, being careful to not rotate the eggs during the transfer—that will kill the embryos. A typical clutch for common snapping turtles is anywhere from 15-80 eggs, with 25 being fairly average. Incubate at 68-86 degrees Fahrenheit for 80-90 days at 100% humidity.
These turtles do display temperature dependent sex determination, with all females being produced at both the high and low end of the temperature range, and nearly all males being produced between 75 and 78 degrees. Hatchlings will need a few days to absorb the yolk sac, at which point they can be transferred to small, nursery tanks modeled after the adult enclosures.
Conclusion: Snappers are not for everyone—they are big, often pugnacious turtles with large appetites. However, for those who can commit, they are fascinating, almost dinosaur-like captives that will never fail to entertain and reward their keeper. It is important to mention, however, that before one is to acquire a snapping turtle, they should check their state and local wildlife laws first—snapping turtles are illegal to own in some areas, such as California; while permits may be needed to have one in other areas. Please do not break the law to own a snapping turtle.
Also, if you find yourself overwhelmed by your charge, do not release it into the wild—there are a number of resources you can use to rehome your turtle instead, such as online classifieds, reptile forums, and even reptile rescue organizations.