For snapping turtles, life continues to emerge as it has for millions of years

Photograph by Nicholas Spooner-rodie

aby snapping turtles emerge from soft soil as summer ends and autumn begins. Having avoided being sniffed out and devoured by raccoons, skunks and foxes while still nestled in their eggs, they are now ready to run a gauntlet of gulls, crows and other predators on their way to the nearest lake. Like the season itself, the annual emergence of newborn snappers evokes a bittersweet blend of feelings. The quarter-sized youngsters are the cutest they will ever be, a joy to my students at Paul Smith’s College who seek them out like four-leaf clovers on the campus lawns, cradle them briefly in their palms, and ferry them to the water’s edge. But more dangers await them there. Few will survive the attentions of pike, bass and otters, some will starve, and others will drown when waves overwhelm them as they try to breathe at the surface. The cruel math of such an abundance of newborn lives requires that most of them will be short, otherwise the world would soon be covered with turtles. And yet life nonetheless continues to emerge anew, as it has for millions of years and will do for ages to come.

Snappers are not only the state reptiles of New York, but also our largest and heaviest turtles. Adult males whose shells approach two feet in length can weigh more than 20 pounds, and those who survive infancy can live as long as we do. The females breed repeatedly after reaching maturity in their late teens to early 20s. When a mother snapper scoops a shallow pit in the loose sand of a beach, meadow or roadside in early summer, she then deposits several dozen ping-pong balls with leathery shells, buries them, and abandons them to their fates. Warmer temperatures near the top of the nest tend to produce females, and cooler eggs near the bottom favor males. This temperature dependence is common among reptiles, and some experts speculate that dinosaurs went extinct because debris from the killer asteroid darkened the skies, cooled the world, and turned the post-impact generation into unisex bachelors. Others worry that global warming might fatally feminize turtles of the future.

Cars are a more immediate threat for adults who wander in search of nesting sites or new home lakes. Perhaps you are among those of us who might turn the flashers on and pull over to serve as a crossing guard for a snapper, but then wonder how to do it safely. Depending on the individual, they could hiss and freeze in place or lunge at you with sharp beak and the long, snake-like neck that gives them the technical name C. serpentina. The force of a human bite is much greater than theirs, but it is wise to avoid both. In any case, don’t damage their undersides by dragging them, dislocate vertebrae by lifting with the tail, or drop them when their claws gouge your hands as you grip the sides of the shell. Experts advise gently easing a shovel under them from behind or coaxing them onto a blanket and lifting by the corners.

While the recent COVID crisis reduced traffic nationwide, many of our road-crossing turtles, frogs and salamanders enjoyed a brief reprieve from the grim reaper during their peak egg-laying seasons. Perhaps the coming year will see minor bumps in population sizes akin to a post-war baby boom. One can only hope.    

Dr. Curt Stager is a professor of natural sciences at Paul Smith’s College.

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