Snapping Turtle

Chelydra serpentina

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Photo of a snapping turtle walking on land with algae on shell.
The snapping turtle has a big pointed head, long thick tail, and small lower shell.
David Stonner
Other Common Name
Common Snapping Turtle
Family

Chelydridae (snapping turtles) in the order Testudines

Description

The snapping turtle is a large aquatic turtle with a big pointed head, long thick tail, and small plastron (lower shell). Upper shell may be tan, brown, or nearly black, but it is often covered with mud or algae. In young turtles, the upper shell has 3 rows of low keels, but these are less apparent in older individuals. The head is often covered with numerous small black lines or spots. Underparts are yellowish-white. The upper part of the tail has large, pointy scales in a sawtoothed row. The eyes can be seen from above.

Take care if you plan on handling large snapping turtles! They have strong jaws and long necks. Grasping the turtle by the base of the tail (keeping it away from your legs) is safe for you, but it can potentially injure the turtle's backbone. If you must move a large snapper, it is best to consult a wildlife professional.

Similar species: The alligator snapping turtle (Macrochelys temminckii) is rare, declining, and protected by law. Its upper shell has 3 prominent ridges — 1 along the center line and 1 on either side. The large head terminates in a sharp, strongly hooked beak. The tail is long and muscular. Skin on the head, neck, and forelimbs has a number of fleshy projections or tubercles.

Size

Upper shell length: 8–14 inches; weight 10–35 pounds.

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Photo of a snapping turtle.
Snapping Turtle (Common Snapping Turtle)
This species was formerly called the "common snapping turtle," but scientists are now in favor of calling it simply "snapping turtle."

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Photo of a snapping turtle on grass gaping at camera.
Snapping Turtle (Common Snapping Turtle)
Snapping turtles occur statewide anywhere there is permanent water.

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Photo of a snapping turtle walking among plants near a pond.
Snapping Turtle (Common Snapping Turtle)
Female snapping turtles often travel overland during egg-laying season and often are killed by cars.

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Photo of a female snapping turtle with rear end in nest.
Snapping Turtle (Common Snapping Turtle)
Female snapping turtles dig a nest in deep sand or loose soil and deposit usually 20–30 eggs.

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Photo of a snapping turtle hatchling looking at camera.
Snapping Turtle (Common Snapping Turtle) Hatchling
Because of predation, hatchling snapping turtles have an abysmally low survival rate.

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Photo of a snapping turtle on a gravel surface with mouth open.
Snapping Turtle (Common Snapping Turtle)
Snapping turtles are pursued for their meat, and conservation of this species involves regulated hunting.

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Common Snapping Turtle snaps at camera.
Common Snapping Turtle Snaps at Camera

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black and white illustration of common snapping turtle, side view
Common Snapping Turtle Illustration
Habitat and conservation

Commonly occurs in farm ponds, marshes, swamps, sloughs, rivers, and reservoirs — anywhere there is permanent water. Prefers bodies of water with a mud bottom, abundant aquatic vegetation, and submerged logs. Females often travel overland during egg-laying season and often are killed by cars. Both sexes travel overland seeking a new home if their pond dries up. Conservation of this species involves regulated hunting: Check the Wildlife Code of Missouri for specifics.

Foods

Insects, crayfish, fish, snails, earthworms, amphibians, snakes, small mammals, and birds. However, up to a third of the diet may consist of aquatic vegetation. Carrion may also be consumed.

image of Snapping Turtle Common Snapping Turtle Distribution Map
Distribution in Missouri

Statewide.

Status

To maintain healthy populations of this turtle, harvest is controlled by state regulations. Consult the most recent Wildlife Code of Missouri for current regulations.

Common throughout the state. This species was formerly called the "common snapping turtle," but scientists are now in favor of calling it simply "snapping turtle." They removed the word "common" from the name because that term might mislead people into thinking this turtle is abundant, when instead it is only the most typical and widespread member of its family.

Life cycle

Courtship and mating can take place between April and November, but mostly in late spring and early summer. June is the usual month for egg-laying, though two clutches may be laid per season. The female digs a nest in deep sand or loose soil and deposits usually 20–30 eggs. These hatch 55–125 days later, depending on environmental conditions. Males become mature in 4–5 years, and females in 4–7. These turtles are most active at night.

Human connections

An economically important game animal pursued for its meat, which makes a fine stew and an excellent soup. Make sure you know the current regulations regarding their harvest. Studies have shown that these turtles do not harm game fish or waterfowl populations in natural conditions, though they may become a nuisance in artificial ponds.

Ecosystem connections

These turtles help to keep the populations of many aquatic animals (and aquatic plants) in check. Meanwhile, studies have shown that up to 84 percent of nests can be destroyed by hungry predators such as skunks, raccoons, and mink.