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The Common Snapping Turtle (Chelydra serpentina) is a large freshwater turtle of the family Chelydridae. Its natural range extends from southeastern Canadamarker south, west to the Rocky Mountains (and beyond, where introduced), throughout Mexicomarker, and as far south as Ecuadormarker. This species and the larger Alligator Snapping Turtle are both widely referred to as snapping turtles or snappers (though the Common Snapping Turtle, as its name implies, is much more widespread overall). The Snapping Turtle is the largest freshwater turtle in the western United States.

Common snappers are noted for their belligerent disposition when out of the water, their powerful beak-like jaws and their highly mobile head and neck (hence the specific name "serpentina," meaning "snake-like"). In some areas they are hunted very heavily for their meat, a popular ingredient in turtle soup. These turtles have lived for up to 47 years in captivity, while the lifespan of wild individuals is estimated to be around 30 years.

Anatomy and morphology

Chelydra serpentina have rugged, muscular builds with ridged carapaces (though ridges tend to be more pronounced in younger individuals). The carapace (upper shell) length in adulthood may be nearly 50 cm (20 inches), though 25--47 cm, or 10--18.5 inches, is more common, with C. serpentina and its subspecies commonly weighing 4.5--16 kg (10--35 lb). Exceptionally large (often captive and overfed) individuals may reach 34 kg (75 lb).

Ecology and life history

Common habitats are shallow ponds, shallow lakes, or streams. Some may inhabit brackish environments, such as estuaries. Common Snapping Turtles sometimes bask -- though rarely observed -- by floating on the surface with only their carapace exposed, though in the northern parts of their range they will also readily bask on fallen logs in early spring. In shallow waters, Common snappers may lie beneath a muddy bottom with only the head exposed, stretching their long necks to the surface for an occasional breath (note that their nostrils are positioned on the very tip of the snout, effectively functioning as snorkels). Snapping turtles are omnivores, consuming both plant and animal matter, and are important aquatic scavengers; but they are also active hunters that prey on anything they can swallow, including many invertebrates, fish, frogs, reptiles (including snakes and smaller turtles), unwary birds and small mammals.

Snappers will travel extensively overland to reach new habitat or to lay eggs. Pollution, habitat destruction, food scarcity, overcrowding and other factors will drive snappers to move overland; it is quite common to find them traveling far from the nearest water source. This species mates from April through November, with their peak laying season in June and July. The female can hold sperm for several seasons, utilizing it as necessary. Females travel over land to find sandy soil in which to lay their eggs, often some distance from the water. After digging a hole, the female typically deposits 25 to 80 eggs each year, guiding them into the nest with her hind feet and covering them with sand for incubation and protection. Incubation time is temperature-dependent, ranging from 9 to 18 weeks. In cooler climates, hatchlings overwinter in the nest.
Hiding near surface
A female Common Snapping Turtle (Chelydra serpentina) looking for a suitable spot to lay her eggs.
She has found a suitable spot, dug a hole in the sandy soil, and is now depositing her eggs.
Closeup of the eggs.

Systematics & taxonomy

Four subspecies of Common Snapping Turtle are typically recognized: C. s. serpentina is the form present across the majority of its range, occurring east of the Continental Divide into most of the southern United Statesmarker, and parts of northern Mexico. C. s. osceola occurs only in Floridamarker up to the Okefenokee area of southern Georgiamarker. C. s. acutirostris and C. s. rossignonii are neotropical, C. s. rossignonii occurring in southern Mexico, Belizemarker, Guatemalamarker and Hondurasmarker while C s. acutirostris ranges from Nicaraguamarker across the Central American isthmus down the South American Pacificmarker coastal region. C. s. rossignonii is considered a distinct species, C. rossignonii, by some authors.
Common Snapping Turtle tail

Importance to humans

In captivity

It is a common misconception that Common snapping turtles may be safely picked up by the tail with no harm to the animal; in fact, this has a high chance of injuring the turtle, especially the tail itself and the vertebral column. A handler must also be wary of injury; these turtles are aptly named, as they can snap with surprising speed, reach and power. If moving it is absolutely necessary, scooping and lifting the turtle just off the ground with a shovel (especially a snow shovel), if done quickly, may be safest and easiest for all concerned parties.

Lifting the turtle with the hands is difficult and dangerous. Snappers may stretch their necks halfway back across their own carapace to bite. Also, their claws are sharp and capable of inflicting injuries. Manual lifting (which should be done only if no other options are available) is best accomplished by grabbing the top of the shell behind the head with one hand and the other hand holding the shell between the rear legs. Then you can proceed to lift the turtle with the head facing away from you and all others. This way the turtle will not be able squirm and try to dislodge the handler's hands with its hind legs. Even a small snapper is relatively powerful for its size, with long sharp claws; further, due to their aquatic habits, these turtles are often slimy and wet, and are good at causing prospective handlers to lose their grip. In the case that a snapping turtle must be handled, it is best to keep the turtle on the ground or very close. Wild turtles may be covered with a smelly pond slime and may also defecate, urinate or musk on a handler.

In politics

A political cartoon depicting merchants attempting to dodge the "Ograbme."
The Common snapper, known commonly and in folklore as the "Ograbme," was the central feature of a famous Americanmarker political cartoon. Published in 1808 in protest at the Jeffersonian Embargo Act of 1807, the cartoon depicted a snapping turtle, jaws locked fiercely to an American trader who was attempting to carry a barrel of goods onto a Britishmarker ship. The trader was seen whimsically uttering the words "Oh! this cursed Ograbme" ("embargo" spelled backwards). This piece is widely considered a pioneering work within the genre of the modern political cartoon.

The year 2006 saw the snapping turtle declared the state reptile of New Yorkmarker by a sweeping vote of the New York Legislature after being popularly chosen by the state's public elementary school children.


  1. Complete Field Guide to North American Wildlife Page 397


Image:Common_Snapping_Turtle_1994.jpg|Common Snapping Turtle (Chelydra serpentina)Image:Common_Snapping_Turtle_1429.jpg|Common Snapping Turtle sunning atop a beaver lodgeImage:Snapping_turtle_2_md.jpg|Common Snapping TurtleImage:Snapping.jpg|Common Snapping Turtle on wooden porchImage:Chelydra serpentinaHolbrookV1P23A.jpg|IllustrationImage:Babysnappingturtle.jpg|Baby Snapping Turtle, Central PAImage:BabySnapingTurtle01.jpg|Baby Snapping Turtle, Central PAImage:BabySnappingTurtle18.jpg|Baby Snapping Turtle, Central PAImage:BabySnappingTurtle4.jpg|Baby Snapping Turtle, Central PA

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