A friend recently told me about seeing a big snapping turtle on the East River. I wasn’t surprised as this is the time of year you are most likely to see snapping turtles out of the water. Snapping turtles are normally shy and remain in shallow lakes or slow moving water of rivers where they feed on fish, frogs and salamanders, as well as anything else they find.
They have a very well developed sense of smell which they use to locate food. I saw this ability myself a few years ago when I was fishing at the White Rock on West River Antigonish. I was fishing on one side while another angler fished across the water about 50 metres away. There was a big snapping turtle swimming on my side of the pool and every so often it would poke its head out of the water. The other angler caught and released a small trout but I guess it was hooked deeper than he thought and instead of swimming away it lay on the bottom with a small amount of blood coming from its gills. I was quietly fishing when, about 30 minutes later, the other angler hollered to me that the snapping turtle was eating the trout. It had smelled the fish from across the pool.
Snapping turtles are significantly larger than other freshwater turtles found in Nova Scotia. A large one will have a shell up to 50cm long. With their long neck and pointed tail they can be an impressive sight. But this is one turtle you want to admire from a distance. While snapping turtles have a large upper shell, called a carapace, the bottom part of the shell, called a plastron, is considerably smaller. So small in fact that snapping turtles cannot pull their legs and head all the way into their shell. Since they can’t hide, they must fight. As a result snapping turtles have an aggressive nature and should be treated with respect. Their long neck allows them to reach around their shell for quite a distance and their strong jaws will inflict a nasty bite.
At this time of year snapping turtles will leave the water to lay their eggs. One of their favourite places to dig their nests is in loose gravel along the edges of roads. They will also head to sandy beaches or any area where the digging is easy, and the nest will be close to water. There the female digs her nest and lays from 20 to 40 eggs. These eggs will develop over the summer and hatch around the first of October. The young turtles will overwinter in, or around the nest and head for the water early next spring.
Snapping turtles have few enemies but they are very vulnerable at this time of year when they leave the safety of the water and often cross busy roads to find good areas to lay their eggs. Many are hit by cars on this trip. If you encounter snapping turtles at this time of year admire them form a distance but leave them in peace. They are a unique part of our aquatic environment.
Don MacLean is an outdoor writer and biologist who lives in Pictou County.