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Jun 12, 2017 10:26 PMPublication: The East Hampton Press & The Southampton Press

Encounters With New York's Official State Reptile

A snapping turtle in Agawam Park in Southampton a few weeks ago. MICHELLE MALONE
Jun 13, 2017 9:02 AM

While kayaking one of the shallow coves in Mecox Bay just after sunset, I heard a loud series of splashes and turned to investigate. In the dim light of dusk I could just make out two large snapping turtles rolling around in a foot of water, locked in what appeared to be a wrestling match. I assumed I was witnessing their courtship and mating behavior, but I later learned that males will engage in this kind of physical aggression to define the boundaries of their aquatic territories.Among our reptiles—lizards, snakes and turtles—the latter have enjoyed a relatively popular status among homo sapiens for many years, possibly as long as we’ve been around. Turtles played a significant role in Native American mythology, their slow-moving, sedentary behavior interpreted as being a result of patience and wisdom, and their astounding longevity a source of respect.

An exception to that rule may be the snapping turtle (Chelydra serpentina). There’s no mistaking the identity of this dinosaur-like turtle. Unlike any of our much larger sea turtles, or tortoises found elsewhere in North America, one senses that caution is important when approaching the fierce-looking snapper. The jagged-edged rear portion of its upper shell, incredibly long claws, huge head, and long tail whose upper side has a row of triangular plates, all seem to be forms of armor designed for battle.

This is partly true, but only when this creature is found out of its element: shallow, marshy areas with a soft mud bottom and plenty of aquatic plants for cover. There, its undersized plastron, or lower shell, is less of a liability as it rests partially buried in the sediments. When danger approaches, its first choice is to retreat to safety. But on land it is much more vulnerable, and lacking the ability to withdraw its head, tail and legs into the safety of its shell, it will strike a fierce defensive pose when threatened.

I had many encounters with snappers of all sizes while doing turtle surveys on the South Fork and Shelter Island some years ago.

They were by far the most difficult turtle to extricate from mesh hoop traps as they thrashed about and got themselves more and more entangled.

I knew about their powerful beaks, or jaws, that, although toothless, could inflict a damaging bite. But I was surprised at their quickness and agility, and how impossibly far their neck could stretch, reaching well back towards the rear of their shell where I was focused on entangling their rear feet and claws. The latter on some of the larger specimens seemed more like hawk talons than turtle claws, and I received a few good gashes from them.

Another quick lesson was their foul-smelling nature. This I assumed was a by-product of their habit of hunkering down in the muckiest portions of their home pond or creek. But during a later, several-years-long study of spotted turtles in similar habitat, I realized that the odor was specifically found on the snappers, not as a function of the environment but emitted from the animal as an additional form of defense when stressed.

Snapping turtles range over most of the United States east of the Rockies and north into southern Canada and the Canadian maritimes. They are mainly a freshwater species but can tolerate some salinity, and here on Long Island they will venture out into the salt marsh and brackish portions of our estuaries. They are most active at night, active being a relative term, as their hunting strategy is a “wait and strike” ambush.

Studies in New York and New Jersey found that vegetation comprised half their diet. Crayfish topped the list among animal prey.

Their reputation for eating fish and ducklings makes then unpopular among many waterfowl hunters and freshwater fishermen, but scientific studies have not documented significant tolls on gamefish or waterfowl.

On the other side of predator/prey coin, river otters have been known to locate hibernating snapping turtles during the winter, excavate them from their muddy hibernacula, and haul them to shore or out on the ice for a meal of turtle meat. Unlike other turtles that the otters might find in winter—for example the red-eared slider one dined on near the headwaters of Sunken Meadow Creek several years ago—the tiny plastron on the snapping turtle enables otters to eat most of the meat and organs, not just the feet, tail and head.

Measuring up to 20 inches in length (upper shell excluding the tail and head) and weighing up to 45 pounds, a mature snapper provides a nice-sized meal for a group of otters.

Basking on logs or the shoreline on sunny days is an important and common behavior among most of our aquatic turtles. Snapping turtles will do this, but I have never witnessed it. In my experience, they will bask at the water’s surface with just their eyes and nostrils protruding from the water, but their dark shell absorbing the warm rays of the sun much as the diamondback terrapin does in our estuaries and bays.

Most terrestrial sightings of our native turtles, with the exception of the box turtle, are females coming ashore to lay eggs or hatchlings. June is egg laying time. But it is not unusual to find a snapping turtle, male or female, making its way along terra firma at other times of the summer and early fall, and these sightings can be in some unusual locations quite far from water. Some years ago a large snapper was observed lumbering down Lumber Lane in Bridgehampton, south of the railroad tracks and headed north. It was more than a half mile from the nearest pond in a busy, very developed residential area.

Snapping turtles, along with diamondback terrapins, are still legally hunted and trapped for human consumption. Some conservationists have questioned the sustainability of a commercial harvest of these species given the many other threats they face here on Long Island, and are working to change that policy. That policy change may come about from a different angle: snappers can survive incredible high doses of toxins in their body fat and those contaminants are not removed via processing or cooking.

There’s no doubt that this species is a real survivor, hanging on in some very marginal habitat throughout its range.

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I wish I could post the pictures I took this morning! I live on Hands Creek in East Hampton, and our annual visitor was in my backyard just this morning digging a hole and laying her eggs. and years ago while kayaking and letting my hand drift in the water, a fisherman stretching his nuts warned me that I'd lose a finger to the snapping turtle if I continue to do that. It makes me think twice every time I go in the water out here. And yes, Mike, they do indeed look like dinosaurs!
By TTTTrina (13), East Hampton on Jun 14, 17 5:30 PM
Oh dear typo typo it should be stretching his fishing nets… LOL… Please fix that for me, dear Editor!!!
By TTTTrina (13), East Hampton on Jun 14, 17 5:32 PM
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