Common Snapping Turtle

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Species group:

Other common names: Snapping Turtle, Northern Snapping Turtle, “Loggerhead”, “Snapper”

Scientific name: Chelydra serpentina

The Basics:
Large, aggressive, and about as “dinosaur-like” as a turtle can be, Common Snapping Turtles are often collected as hatchlings by turtle enthusiasts. While these formidable “swamp monsters” are among the hardiest (sometimes being active in iced-over ponds!) and most interesting of all turtles, Snappers can be dangerous, and grow far too large (to 80+ pounds), for any but the most experienced adult keepers (with time, space and extra cash on hand!).

The Common Snapping Turtle’s huge range extends from southern Canada through most of the USA east of the Rocky Mountains to Texas. Introduced populations, derived from released pets and meat farm escapees, are established in the western USA (California, Oregon, Arizona, Nevada), Japan, China, and Taiwan.

Snapping Turtles spend the majority of their lives in water, favoring shallow, heavily-vegetated swamps, ponds, canals, and bogs. However, they are also common in deep lakes and the waterways of NYC and other urban centers; certain populations have evolved unique adaptations to life in brackish tidal rivers.

Appearance / Health:
Common Snapping Turtles have a massive head, powerful jaws and a long neck. The dark, 12-20 inch carapace (upper shell) is keeled, and serrated at the rear edge. The plastron (lower shell) is quite small. The tail is thick, as long as the carapace, and topped with ridges. At an adult weight of 20-86 pounds, this is the USA’s second-largest fresh-water turtle.

These ponderous survivors of eons past are very hardy, with captive longevities approaching 50 years. While subject to all common turtle ailments - metabolic bone disease, egg retention, and fungal/bacterial infections of the shell, skin, and eyes, Snappers are much more resilient than most. Wild-caught individuals should be tested for internal parasites by a veterinarian.

Behavior / Temperament:
While Snappers adjust well to captivity, many remain defensive for years and all will strike at nearby movements in hopes of securing a meal. Bites can be very severe, with large individuals being capable of inflicting serious, permanent injuries. They should never be fed by hand, and picked up only after one is trained by an experienced handler in the single safe method of doing so. Common Snappers are not suitable pets for children (or anyone with a free ranging cat, bird, dog, iguana…!).

Snappers do best in relatively-shallow enclosures equipped with sub-surface basking sites (they rarely bask on land) and powerful filtration. Room temperatures suit this cold-tolerant creature, but a basking site (above the sub-surface resting area) of 78-80 F should be available. Individuals up to 10 inches in length can be accommodated in 55-75 gallon aquariums, but larger tanks and outdoor ponds become necessary as they mature.

Snapping Turtles can utilize dietary Vitamin D, and, if provided a healthful diet, do not require UVB exposure.

Powerful filters are necessary unless the enclosure can be emptied and cleaned several times weekly. Even with filtration, regular partial water changes are essential. Removing your turtles to an easily-cleaned container for feeding will lessen the filter’s workload.

Common Snapping Turtles are at the very top of the food chain in their habitats, consuming other turtles, fish, tadpoles, crayfish, snakes, snails, carrion, frogs, worms, insects, ducks, and muskrats and other aquatic mammals. Aquatic vegetation and fallen fruits and acorns are also taken on occasion.

Pets should be fed earthworms, snails, pre-killed pink mice, crayfish, shiners and other whole, fresh-water fishes (a steady diet of goldfish has been linked to health concerns in other turtle species). Crickets and other insects can be used to add variety to the diet of younger animals. A high-quality dry turtle chow can comprise up to 50% of the diet. A cuttlebone should be available to supplement the calcium provided by whole fishes.

Males become sexually mature when approximately 3-4 years old and females at age 4-7. Mature males may be distinguished their long, thick tails, concave plastrons, thick forearms, and generally larger size. Breeding usually occurs in early spring, with normal room temperature fluctuations being sufficient to stimulate mating activity.

Gravid (egg-bearing) females usually become restless and may refuse food. They should be removed to a large container (i.e. 5x the length and width of the turtle) provisioned with 10-15 inches of slightly moist soil and sand. Gravid females that do not nest should be seen by a veterinarian as egg retention invariably leads to a fatal infection (egg peritonitis). It is important to note that females may develop eggs even if unmated, and that pets may produce 2-3 clutches each year. The 6-100+ eggs may be incubated in a mix of 1 part vermiculite to 1 part water (by weight) at 78-85 F for 55-80 days.

Written by Frank Indiviglio


fascinating turtles, advanced reptile owners


aggressive, large pool, bone crushing bite, huge filters, daily cleaning, powerful jaws


ravenous eaters, varied diet, turtle pellets, raw meat, angry swamp creatures

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