Common Snapping Turtle

Scientific name: Chelydra serpentina serpentina

Photo of bicephalous baby snapping turtle - copyright James Gerholdt

The common snapping turtle has a broad range and is found throughout the eastern two-thirds of the United States and in southern and eastern Canada.

The snapping turtle is a common inhabitant of Minnesota's waterways, from rivers to lakes to swamps. It's an important part of Minnesota's environment. It is a predator and helps keep populations of other animals in balance.

Snapping turtles prefer slow moving and shallow waters, such as lakes and swamps. But, snapping turtles can also live on the edge of deeper lakes and rivers.

Although snappers live up north, they hunt like alligators. They will lie still in water and wait for an unsuspecting critter to swim by -- usually a fish. If it is something that a turtle can eat, it will probably end up being the turtle's next meal.

Baby snappers eat insects, worms, snails, small fish, water plants, and anything edible that it can find. Adult snappers eat larger critters, such as crayfish, fish, frogs, salamanders, tadpoles, toads, snakes, other turtles, small mammals and young water birds, such as ducklings. They are also scavengers and clean up dead animals and fish. What most people don't know is that snappers also eat lots of plants. In fact, water plants make up to one one-third of their diet!

How did this type of turtle get its name? It's because of how they eat. They will slowly approach their prey and then lunge at it with incredible speed. They move so fast that their prey doesn't even see them coming. Then, "snap"! A fish can disappear instantly into the snapper's mouth. Sometimes, a snapping turtle can catch two or three fish at a time!

Snapping turtles are very shy around people and try not to be noticed by us. That's because they consider people a possible threat, so they will try to get away to defend themselves from us.

When a snapping turtle is caught by a person it is very aggressive and will lunge at you very quickly with its mouth wide open. Its jaws close with a loud "crunch" when its neck reaches full length. If it grabbed something in its jaws, it doesn't easily let it go. Snapping turtles have a very strong bite and powerful jaws that are designed to cut, not crush. It can easily cut off your fingers. So, don't bother snapping turtles -- just leave them alone if you see them. And remember that they are important to have in our environment.

Occasionally, mutations occur in snapping turtles. One of the more common mutations is a turtle that has two heads (bicephalous). This mutation is not believed to be caused by something bad in our environment; most herpetologists (people who study reptiles and amphibians) believe it is just a part of nature.

Snapping turtles can live over 30 years in the wild. But, many of them don't live very long. When they are hatchlings, lots of other critters prey on them, including birds, raccoons, cats, dogs, fox and other turtles. But, their main predator is people. Many people hunt them for meat -- ever heard of turtle soup? Fortunately, there are now turtle farms that raise turtles commercially. And some states protect turtles so that they can't be hunted.

In addition to problems with predators, snapping turtles also have problems finding a place to live. A lot of their natural habitat is being changed by people, making it unfit for turtles. So if you see a snapping turtle, you'll know how important they are and how important it is for us to protect them.

Order: Testudines
Family: Chelydroidea
Genus: Chelydra
Species: serpentina serpentina

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Want to know more about Minnesota's water? Check out our Water page and find out how the MPCA helps to protect Minnesota's water.