Green Room

“These Dirty Filthy Mud-Turtles”

From a continuing series on revolting creatures.

Turtle. Clck image to expand.
Snapping turtle

More revolting creatures: the vulture, the tick, the jellyfish, and the slug.

We may think of snapping turtles as hissing, lunging, and biting beasts, but that’s because we tend to meet them on land. In water, they’re more shy than hostile, swimming away from threats and retreating into the mud.

They’re shy but not beautiful, these creatures of the mud, and I have seen them up close. A couple of summers ago, I was swimming in my upstate New York pond and saw, a few yards away on the surface of the water, a curious combination of moving body parts. There was a glossy, ridged back, then another glossy back, a scaly paw with bearlike claws, and part of a thick, thorny tail.

Breaking any previous pond freestyle record, I swam to shore.

Through binoculars I could see that the mélange of shells, claws, and tails was Shakespeare’s beast with two backs—a pair of snapping turtles locked in an embrace that went on for another half-hour. When the coupling had finished and the male unfastened his grip on the female’s back, the two stayed floating near each other awhile longer. Then one gave the other (I’d lost track of which was which) a little nudge on the shell with its blunt snout, and they went back to the bottom of the pond.

Two years have passed, and we haven’t seen those lovers again. We haven’t seen any snapping turtles at all. Yet there are people who refuse to swim in our pond because, over twilight gin and tonics, we have told this charming tale of reptile love.

After some research I realized I could have shared the water with the amorous turtles.  For one thing, those two were preoccupied, in the most basic sense of the word. They were also on their home turf: According to various trustworthy Web sites, snappers are benign in water and defensive unto aggressive on land, when provoked.

“I have never heard of anyone being attacked or injured by a snapping turtle in water, unless they were trying to catch it or restrain it,” says J. Whitfield Gibbons, University of Georgia professor of ecology and co-author of Turtles of the Southeast. Gibbons did recall, vividly, being bitten on the finger by a Potomac River snapper when he reached down and grabbed the shell. At any rate, it was a laceration, not an amputation. (The old bite-the-broomstick-in-two-with-its-powerful-jaws thing is greatly exaggerated, he says. And please don’t try it—the turtle can suffer a broken jaw.)

I asked Gibbons and other herpetologists whether they’d rather have a swimming hole with a snapping turtle in it or one without. The answer was definitely with. It’s like having a small dinosaur in your pond, said Michigan State University herpetologist James Harding. (And who wouldn’t want that?) In fact, it’s like having a particularly useful little dinosaur, one that consumes dead fish and rotting vegetation and controls the frog, snail, and leech populations. Despite their frightening appearance—30 to 80 pounds of muscle and shell, carapace a foot long, and hooked jaw—many snapping turtles have a diet that’s 65 percent vegetation.

These animals are not merely misunderstood by most of us—they’re often demonized. The protagonist of Edmund Wilson’s brilliant story “The Man Who Shot Snapping Turtles” drains his pond (after his shooting campaign has failed) and beheads the snapping turtles he believes have eaten baby ducks. Here’s the title character sermonizing: “If God has created the mallard, a thing of beauty and grace, how can He allow these dirty filthy mud-turtles to prey upon His handiwork and destroy it?”

The image of a reptile rising from the depths to pluck a straggling duckling is certainly frightening, and there’s no question which side the human observer takes. Still, this predation on cute little water birds does occur, but not often, and definitely not often enough to have a detrimental effect on waterfowl populations. The turtles, of course, came before the birds; snapping turtles have barely changed shape in the last 200 million years.

Turtles occasionally consume a lovely little duckling, but so do human beings. We eat turtles, too. In Pentimento, Lillian Hellmann writes of taking an ax to a snapper with the help of her lover, Dashiell Hammett. While they’re off looking up Cajun soup recipes, the creature, its head dangling from a tiny piece of neck, climbs off the stove and out the kitchen door, leaving a trail of blood. Note to Hellman’s fact-checkers: She says, mistakenly, that the turtle’s head can be retracted into its shell and also that the mother snapper sits on her eggs.

Snapping turtles, like sea turtles, can’t pull their heads, tails, and legs in under their shells the way the familiar hinged box turtle can. The shell on the snapper’s underside (called, for all turtles, the plastron) is shaped like a Celtic cross—an adaptation that aids flexibility for bottom walking but leaves the creatures’ legs exposed. Flip a snapper over to expose this insufficient armor and he or she is finished, thus the turtle’s belligerent tactics. There’s a French proverb that applies: Cet animal est méchant; il se défend.

Mother Snapper does not sit on her eggs. She buries her clutch of 30 or so—some female snappers can lay 100—in a sandy bank and takes off. The deal at the beginning of life is extremely harsh; in the first year, only a few out of 1,000 would-be snappers survive. First, almost every snapping turtle egg is eaten. Raccoons are the primary consumers, followed by skunks and foxes. Then the remaining hatchlings, only about the size of a quarter when they emerge with shells still soft, fall prey, as they scuttle toward water, to a large and varied cast of predators—herons, crows, bass, pike, coyotes, and bullfrogs, along with the egg-eating raccoons, foxes, and skunks.

The snappers’ very bad odds at the start of life have been balanced by very good odds of living a long time upon reaching maturity. Most snappers live to between 50 and 100. As recompense for all that infant mortality, snapping turtles spend all of their lives in the fertile years. They go through puberty at the age of 8, and their reproductive organs keep working right up until their last breath. (In fact, a matronly snapper lays a larger clutch of eggs than a young female.)

More astounding is that turtles’ other organs do not age. Display the organs of a 50-year-old turtle beside those of an 8-year-old, and there’s no difference. The creatures can get sick, but an aged turtle is no more vulnerable to disease than a youngster. A snapping turtle has no aching joints, no hardening arteries, no loss of lung capacity, no need for a liver transplant, no deteriorating vision, and no more wrinkles than he or she was born with. (Dementia? “How could you tell?” said Harding, who admires turtles but admits they’re pretty much on automatic pilot, not doing a lot of deep thinking.)

As adults, snapping turtles are not only admirably resilient; they have very few predators. Gibbons reports he once saw an alligator eat a snapping turtle, but we’re the primary foe. Though a few states have banned commercial trapping, it’s still common and profitable to catch turtles and ship the meat off to China, where some believe that eating a long-lived creature will endow the diner with long life.

We also squash turtles with our cars. The victims are primarily the females traveling a mile or two to lay their eggs in a sandy bank and colonize a new pond. Wildlife-loving friends have recounted misadventures when they tried to rescue a snapping turtle in the road. The creature is invariably unappreciative.

If you do see a turtle on the blacktop, herpetologist James Harding proposes blocking traffic with cones or a flare (taking your own safety into consideration) until the turtle has gotten itself off the road. An alternative is to get the turtle to bite an old jacket or towel and then pull it off the road in the direction it was traveling. (Don’t pick the turtle up by the tail; you can actually hear the vertebrae snapping.) In whatever sort of on-land encounter, it’s worth remembering that the common snapping turtle’s Latin name, Chelydra serpentina, refers to its snakelike neck—which can reach back at least two-thirds the length of its body.

Turtle trapping and turtle highway fatalities threaten the balance that keeps the turtle population stable. In his first lecture of the year, Harding tells his students that the most important thing to remember about turtles “is not that they can live long lives but that they must live long lives.”