Lately, while driving around, I’ve seen lots of turtles digging out holes on the shoulders of the roads to lay their eggs. Most of them are painted turtles, but there’s also a fair number of large snapping turtles. These are the only two species found in this area.
People must be looking out for them, I’m happy to say, as I haven’t seen very much in the way of road kill. Some years there is a lot of turtle carnage on our local roads. But it’s still early in the year. Turtle egg-laying will last another month.
Painted turtles are smaller and seem to be more common, but I think the snapper biomass is substantial. Some of these turtles are huge; easily over 30 cm across their carapace and weighing over 6 kg. Snapping turtles, like many turtle and tortoises, are long-lived – it’s believed their life-span is well over a hundred years. As a group, turtles haven’t changed much over the past 200 million years, so one has to suspect they are reasonably well designed and suited to their lifestyle. They certainly look prehistoric.
Not surprisingly, there’s not a lot an adult snapping turtle has to fear – outside of humans and their vehicles. Some people like to eat snapping turtles (painted turtles can’t be harvested) as they supposedly make a good soup. I’ve not tried it, but have to think that whatever the taste, large snapping turtles likely have high concentrations of elements and toxins that can’t be good for you. That’s what happens when you live a long time.
Interestingly, despite the fact snapping turtles have been listed as a ‘special concern’ species under Ontario’s Endangered Species Act,. 2007, hunting them is allowed. It’s a kind of a weird situation; the regulation on harvest and possession are listed in the hunting regulations summary, but to harvest a turtle (they are in a category called ‘game amphibians and reptiles’) you need to have a valid sport or conservation fishing license. Both residents and non-residents of Ontario (most of the snapping turtle harvest in this area has been by Americans) can harvest turtles. The season is open all year – with a daily bag limit of 2 and a possession limit of 5. If you harvest a snapping turtle one must complete and submit a mandatory Ministry of Natural Resources and Forestry (OMNRF) questionnaire (both online and printed versions are available). But like all mandatory hunting reports the OMNRF requires one to fill, it’s mandatory in name only. There has never been a charge laid with respect to failing to do any mandatory report, be that for bear, wild turkey, wolf or snapping turtle. So at least at this point in time, it’s a useless and toothless regulation.
There’s a large snapping turtle in the beaver pond in front of our house and it’s been there for many years. Snappers are scavengers and hunters and will eat just about anything they can, including frogs, snakes, goslings and ducklings. Lil rescued a duckling from it’s jaws once a few years ago, but I imagine it’s got a few we are unaware of. Maybe it’s one of the reasons all the geese and ducks left the pond this year shortly after the young fledged.
Sometimes, if it’s a cold year, the eggs a snapper lay won’t hatch that year, but might the year following – if the nest isn’t found by skunks, raccoons, crows, ravens, mink, marten or otter. Although the turtles cover the hole with sand and gravel, I suspect the scent trail gives it away. Or the crows and ravens, which spy on everything, simply wait for the turtle to leave before helping themselves to a meal of fresh eggs. Lil over-wintered a cache of eggs one year that someone stumbled across while doing some construction work, and had good success in getting them to hatch out. Unlike adults, young turtles are preyed on heavily by a host of meat-eating birds and animals.
Female snappers can hold sperm from males they’ve mated with for several seasons, “using it as necessary”.
Snappers got their name because they snap – unlike many turtles, they are too large too hide in their shell, so instead they use their might to hiss and snap at animals they perceive to be a threat. They don’t have teeth, but have a powerful beak, and one doesn’t want to get bitten.
I like turtles, even the somewhat hideous and kind of scary snappers. With a bit of luck, turtles might be around for another 200 million years. They’ll probably out last us.