Don’t Look Down—You’re Probably Swimming With a Dinosaur

After surviving for 40 million years, snapping turtles face an increasingly hostile environment.

The author carefully, very carefully, picks up a snapping turtle. (Photo: Brent Harrell)

Jun 9, 2014· 2 MIN READ
Richard Conniff is the author of House of Lost Worlds: Dinosaurs, Dynasties, and the Story of Life on Earth and other books.

The other night, I was out working on the dunes near my house on Long Island Sound when I noticed strange widespread footprints, with a tail mark slashing back and forth down the middle. It mystified me for a moment, and I stopped what I was doing to follow the tracks down to where it started, in a creek coming out of the salt marsh.

Then I remembered.

It’s June. The snapping turtles are emerging from the water to lay their eggs. There was a second trail 10 feet away from the first, presumably where Big Mama headed back to the creek after covering her nest. I didn’t hunt for the nest itself. The 35 or so eggs laid by a typical snapping turtle need to incubate until they hatch in early August. They’ll have enough trouble till then avoiding careless beachgoers and hungry raccoons and foxes.

A few years ago, I showed a British visitor a big female snapping turtle wandering on this exact spot, and his eyes fell out of his head. The Brit was the guy who produces the TV series River Monsters. So you’d figure he’d be a little jaded. But it was as if I had just shown him a living dinosaur, and maybe I had. The modern snapping turtle (Chelydra serpentina) emerged 40 million years ago. But it’s not much different from the most primitive turtle dating back 215 million years.

Snapping turtles are big and scary, with dazzled, demented-looking eyes. The largest one ever caught weighed 68 pounds, and 45 pounders are not uncommon. Alligator snappers, a common name that applies to three species, live in the Southeast and are even bigger. I once helped catch a 95-pounder for a research project. They can get up to 200 pounds, though it may take them a century to get there.

They are also survivors. Snapping turtles have adapted to modern life and live even in Central Park in the middle of Manhattan. They are the most common turtles in North America. Alligator snapper populations, on the other hand, were severely depleted by habitat loss and commercial hunting for their meat. Catching them is now outlawed in many states and regulated in others, and the population seems to be stable.

Both kinds of snapping turtles face other hazards, including a tendency to bioaccumulate PCBs, endocrine disrupters, and other pollutants. A recent study by David Steen and his coauthors X-rayed turtles and found that 10 percent to 30 percent of snapping turtles had ingested fish hooks. Becoming roadkill is also a hazard, especially right now when females are out wandering. Yet snapping turtles endure.

Here is a comforting thought for the next time you venture into a freshwater lake, pond, or river: Snapping turtles will almost certainly be there with you, even if you never see them. We swim with them routinely. Despite our paranoid fears, these creatures are harmless to human swimmers. They will prey on fish, frogs, salamanders, snails, leeches, snakes, small mammals, and, yes, baby ducks and goslings. But there is no record of a snapping turtle ever biting anyone who was not trying to handle or molest it.

A friend of mine named John Rogers used to make his living trapping snapping turtles for the soup market, and one of his stops was at the site of the legendary 1969 Woodstock music festival. A week after festivalgoers happily went skinny-dipping there, Rogers collected several dozen snapping turtles, averaging 20 pounds apiece, from that same pond. They never bothered the swimmers.

Out of the water, it’s a different story. The snapping turtle’s head can’t pull back into the safety of its shell. Instead, it comes rocketing out on its elongated neck. The turtle can leap up off its front legs, hissing ferociously. The hooked jaws gape open, ready to clamp down on anything unlucky enough to come within reach. It is an admirable display, unless your fingers are involved.

“The likable thing about snapping turtles is that they are, in a word, trouble,” as one writer has put it. (Oh, hell, the writer was me, in my book Swimming With Piranhas at Feeding Time.) But they are interesting trouble—“tough, reclusive, and fiercely independent, unhuggable in a culture determined to make all animals cute, paragons of the ‘Don’t tread on me’ spirit in a society that thinks nature ought to be approachable. Snapping turtles are throwbacks not merely to the dinosaurian epoch during which they evolved but also to our own past as a nation. They are hardheaded American originals.”

So what should you do if you see a snapping turtle?

Stand back and admire.

But mostly, stand back.