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My husband found this very large turtle (or tortoise) crossing a road from an industrial park towards a wooded area. It was in June, in Massachusetts, USA, at 8:00 in the evening. He didn't touch it, just walked alongside to make sure it crossed safely.

The prominent features are as follows:

  • Very hard shell, primarily black, with some dark brown areas
  • Approximately 18 in, (45 cm) long, and 15 in (38 cm) wide, not including head or tail
  • Tail at least 8 in (20 cm) long
  • Very wide feet with long toenails
  • Head sticking out only a few inches
  • Pointed upper part of mouth
  • Low rounded shell
  • Serrated edges, especially on back of shell
  • All body parts wrinkled and bumpy

I've heard that one difference between a turtle and a tortoise is that turtles fully immerse themselves in water, whereas tortoises spend most of their time on land, and drink at the edge without swimming. I'm not sure if that's true. My husband hasn't gone into those woods, so he doesn't know whether or not there's a pond or other body of water nearby.

What is the breed of this gorgeous creature? Is it a turtle or a tortoise? I'd also like to know some other things, such as approximate age; preferred diet; nesting habits; best place and time of year to see them; conservation status (some turtles in Massachusetts are protected or endangered); and any other interesting characteristics.

Click on pictures for closer view.

Turtle with D's foot From the front From the back From side while walking

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    FYI That turtle's neck is almost as long as it's body, and it could bite clean through your boot... – ShemSeger Sep 24 '16 at 21:21
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    The real question here is why the turtle crossed the road :) – Charlie Brumbaugh Sep 24 '16 at 21:46
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Based on this list of turtles in Massachusetts, and this one as well as the pointed nose and the jagged back shell, I am going to say that this is a common snapping turtle.

For more information I would suggest Wikipedia.

It a good thing that you husband didn't touch it, because they are capable of biting (link has gross picture).

  • 4
    That is undoubtably a snapping turtle, not a creature to be messed with, they're bite it pretty much at par with an alligator. – ShemSeger Sep 25 '16 at 5:34
  • Yup, definitely a snapper. +1 – Olin Lathrop Sep 26 '16 at 11:56
  • Thank you for the warning about the picture in the link. It's very kind and a perfect way to let people decide whether or not they want to look at it. Personally, I didn't! – Sue Oct 5 '16 at 3:27
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This is a common snapping turtle. It's not a tortoise. The biggest difference is that turtles are aquatic, spending most of their time in the water, while tortoises live on land.

As for your other questions:

Age:
It's not easy to tell the age of the snapper. They reach full size between 8 and 10 years old. Adults measure from 9.5 to 14.5 inches (24 to 36 cm), with many growing much larger. Healthy snappers live an average of 40-60 years, sometimes longer. By that criteria, the one in your pictures looks fully grown, and is probably somewhere between 10 and 60!

Diet:
Snappers are omnivores. About two-thirds of their diet is plant-based, including all aquatic vegetation. They also eat insects, spiders, worms, fish, frogs, grubs, smaller breeds of turtles. When bigger they eat snakes, birds, and small mammals. They're pretty sedentary, grabbing what comes by rather than hunting.

Nesting habits:
Size, rather than age, determines maturity. Breeding begins at about 8 inches long, usually about 6 years old. They nest between April and November. They mate in the water, then the female travels many days and more than a mile, without stopping for water, to make the nest. (Interestingly, fertilization can take place up to two years before she lays the eggs!) Nests are built on land, in loose, sandy soil, on hills, in full sun. She lays a "clutch" of 20-50 eggs, covers them, and makes the long journey home. If she likes the nesting spot, she'll use it for many years. It's called "nest site fidelity."

Eggs incubate two to four months, depending mostly on the weather. Sadly, very few snapper births are successful, some sources estimate as low as 1 in 100, thus the need for the large clutch. Birds and animals eat most of the eggs. Of those that survive, few hatchlings make it to adulthood. However, large snappers have very few animal predators. Their primary predators are humans, so if they can steer clear of us, they can live a long time!

Best place and time to see them:
In the spring and the fall, the female is seen during the day, traveling to and from nesting areas. Unfortunately, those sightings are usually in the road, where they risk "death-by-car"! They're hard to spot in their murky waters, but they're nocturnal, and eat after dark and early in the morning, so that's the best time to see them. Even then, they stay underwater much of the time, with just their neck and head sticking up, so look for eyes or a moving head. Tread lightly. If scared they'll go under water and swim quickly away.

Conservation status:
In most areas where snappers are abundant, they're not classified as "endangered." In Massachusetts they're "protected." It's illegal to hunt, capture, or remove one from its habitat. Handling is illegal too, and subject to fines, although sometimes people will do so to help them cross the road. Picking them up incorrectly is extremely dangerous to them and should always be avoided unless there's really no other choice. Special handling permits are given to certified wildlife rescuers, rehabilitators, and treatment centers. Even after dying, they're an important part of the eco-system. Removing dead body parts, including just the shells, are subject to a fine, as high as $500.00. In Massachusetts, the penalty for breeding and sales is as high as $2,000.00 (They're legal to have as pets in some states, but not in Massachusetts.)

Some interesting facts:

  • The temperature at which the eggs are maintained determines the gender. Eggs maintained at 68°F produce only females; those at 70-72°F produce both male and female turtles; and those incubated at 73-75°F produce only males.
  • Snapping turtles have extremely good eyesight both above and under water. They can even see straight above their heads. They also have excellent hearing.
  • Because of their bone structure, snapping turtles can't retract their neck all the way into their body, like most other turtles can.
  • Snappers don't bask on rocks or logs. They get the light they need by raising their head toward the sun while the body is underwater. If you think you see a "snapping turtle" on a log, it's probably a different, but similar-looking, turtle. Full-grown snappers are too big for most logs anyway!
  • Snapping turtles are not as aggressive as commonly believed. They will only defend themselves if cornered, cut off from water or physically handled. They don't like confrontation, and would rather swim away than attack.

Information sources include, but aren't limited to:
Tortoise Trust
Bio-kids
Massachusetts Department of Energy and Environmental Affairs
State of Connecticut Department of Energy and Environmental Protection
Tufts Wildlife Center
Incredible World

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