“Snapping turtles, embodiment of turtles who shared the earth with the dinosaurs for a time and are now obliged to share it with the human species, might well report that the former companions were far less stressful.” – Carroll DM 1996 The Year of the Turtle: A natural history. St. Martin’s Griffin, New York.
Last year we moved into a house that is nestled in a quiet corner of the city on seven acres of land. It is lush in greenery and wildlife. Our home is so peaceful and quiet… I love it! In June of last year, shortly after we moved in we woke to a snapping turtle in our driveway. Perplexed my husband and I watched the turtle dig with her hind legs. We watched and googled at the same time and learned that our snapping turtle was a female trying to lay eggs. We named her Mary Shelley.
The snapping turtle is a large freshwater turtle with its habitat ranging from Canada to the Rocky Mountains. The snapping turtle is well known for their fierce belligerent dispositions. They are omnivores, consuming both plants and animals, including anything they can swallow… fish, unwary birds, small mammals. Interestingly, snapping turtles cannot fully hide within their shell, unlike any other turtle.
We were fascinated by Mary Shelley. Photos were snapped and we were late to work watching the turtle. We didn’t know what to do, we knew she was trying to lay eggs, but didn’t know the first thing about snapping turtle mommies. We researched and learned all we could through the power of the internet.
Snapping turtles are fascinating. Mating season starts in late spring – early summer (between May and June). Snapping turtles rarely leave their aquatic habitat except during the breeding season, at which time females travel great distances in search of a place to dig a nest and lay eggs. Year after year, turtles come back to the same spot to lay their eggs. Some turtles have been found as far as a mile from the nearest water source. Selected nest sites include banks, lawns, gardens, road embankments, and sometimes muskrat burrows.
One clutch of eggs is laid in May or June. With powerful hind legs, the female digs a shallow bowl-shaped nest in a well-drained, sunny location. Over a period of several hours, she lays approximately 20 to 40 creamy white, ping-pong ball-sized eggs. After covering the eggs, the female returns to the water, leaving the eggs and hatchlings to fend for themselves. Turtle nests are often preyed upon by raccoons, skunks, and crows. As much as 90% of the nests are annually destroyed by predators.
After learning all we could about how to protect the nest and the babies from predators — you create a cage out of chicken wire that covers the nest and plant marigolds around as marigolds ward off predators such as raccoons. Then you monitor the eggs, when they hatch, a few days later you accompany the babies to the pond to help them to safety — we raced home that evening only to be disappointed in Mary Shelly. She didn’t lay any eggs. She barely dug a hole.
Snapping turtle hatching takes approximately 80 to 90 days, but the hatch date can vary depending on temperature and other environmental conditions. Generally, hatchlings emerge from their leathery egg in August through October by using a small egg tooth to break open the shell. When the young hatch, they dig out of the nest and instinctively head to water. Young at hatching are about an inch long with soft shells and they must make it to water without being preyed upon by raccoons, skunks, foxes, dogs, birds, and snakes. When they reach water, the young turtles may be taken by fish and other snapping turtles. Once the turtles have grown some and their shells harden, they are virtually predator-free.
This year, on a rainy day in June, Mary Shelley returned. I watched Mary Shelley for close to two hours dig her hole and I swear I saw her lay eggs. Determined to have babies this year as 90% of snapping turtles do not survive due to predators, after work I ran to Home Depot, picked up marigolds, chicken wire, twine and stakes. I got home only to discover there were no eggs. So, lesson learned, our soil is too rocky and tough. Mary Shelly needs loose soil to dig. SO, Mary Shelley, please come back as next year I will loosen the soil to make an ideal habitat for your babies.
(Information on this post was found with generous thanks on Wikipedia, State DEEP sites and the Tortoise Trust.)