Common Snapping Turtle/Snapper

Chelydra serpentina

snapping turtle

Snapper, AKA common snapping turtle, photographed at Shark Valley, Everglades National Park, Miami, Miami-Dade County, in November 2021.

Call it the Florida snapping turtle, common snapping turtle, snapping turtle or just plain snapper and you get the sense from the name that this animal, scientifically known as Chelydra serpentina, should be handled with care if not just plain left alone.

For the sake of brevity, we’ll just call it the snapper. And it does snap, lunging forward with intent to do bodily harm at anything it perceives to be a threat to its own well being. And it does so at incredible speeds. The bite has been timed at 78 milliseconds.

It’s one of two snapping turtle species native to the Sunshine State, the other being the alligator snapping turtle, Macrochelys temminckii. The two have somewhat similar looks, but the alligator snapping turtle is only native to the Panhandle west of the Suwanee River, while the snapper is found throughout the state. Find a snapping turtle east of the Suwanee and it’s almost certainly our guy, the snapper.

The alligator snapping turtle is protected under Florida law because its numbers are so low; snappers are also protected even though their numbers are much healthier in order guard against a hunter mistaking one species for the other.

Snappers are found in every part of Florida other than the Keys. Their native range extends through most of the eastern and central U.S., from the Atlantic coast to the base of the Rockies. They’re also found west of the Rockies, the result of hobbyists releasing their pets into the wild. In California, they’re numerous enough to be considered invasive.

Their native range extends through Central American and parts of South America. There are nonnative populations in Europe and Asia, again the result of captive snappers released into the wild.

Look at a snapper and the first thing you notice is how prehistoric it is. That’s no accident. The snapping turtle family emerged 90 million years ago, and has gone largely unchanged since.

The carapace — the shell that covers the back — can be as long as a foot-and-a-half, green, brown or gray-brown, sometimes covered with moss. The shell is also ridged, though more pronounced in young snappers, less so as they age. The margin, or outer edge, is serrated. Snappers can weigh as much as 35 pounds, making it one of Florida's largest freshwater turtles.

The head is large in relation to the body, with a prominent snout and a sharp, hooked upper jaw, which is used for cutting. The neck can extend outward the length of the carapace, or even longer.

The front legs are thick, muscular and scaly, with long, sharp claws at the end. The claws aren’t used as weapons, but they do make handling snappers that much more dangerous. The tail is as long as the carapace, bony and so ancient-looking it brings to mind the ankylosaurus, the turtle-like dinosaur that was armed with a long, clubbed tail. The snapper is much smaller, of course, and its tapered tail lacks a club. To give you an idea of how long the snapper has been “walking” the earth, it actually predates the ankylosaurus by about 20 million years.

The neck and legs are covered with fleshy/bony wart-like things called tubercles; leeches commonly attach themselves to exposed parts of snapper bodies, including the face, adding to the animal’s prehistoric look.

Males and females are similar in size and general appearance. The two sexes can be differentiated by their plastrons, or the shell that covers the underside of the body. The plastron in males is smaller than it is in females, allowing guys to grab onto and hold their partners during mating.

Snappers are mainly aquatic animals. They’ll inhabitat almost any quiet or slow-moving body of water with sandy or muddy bottoms — marshes, swamps, ditches, creeks, bogs, ponds, lakes, rivers and creeks. If necessary, they will venture over land to find find a new home or a suitable nesting site. When they're on land, they can be extremely aggressive; in water, they're more docile.

In South Florida, breeding season for snappers generally begins as early as February and runs through June, although breeding can occur anytime. Farther north in the state, the season begins in April. Farther north still, breeding begins in June. Fun fact: females can retain sperm from one mating as long as three years.

Fertilized females lumber onto land to dig a shallow nest layered with vegetation where she will deposit her eggs. We’ve seen several range estimates as to the number of eggs, from as low as two to 30 to as high as six to 108. As the vegetation decays, it provides the warmth necessary for the viability of the eggs. Variations in temperature within the nest determines the sex of the forming embryos — warmer temps produce females, cooler temps male. The eggs will incubate for about 70 days, but the length of incubation can vary substantially depending on the weather.

At this stage, snappers are vulnerable to a legion of carnivores, including skunks, raccoons and birds that will dig up the nests and eat the eggs. As much as 90 percent of nests inevitably will be destroyed. If the embryos fully develop, they’ll use an egg tooth to open the leathery shell and head to water, which could be a substantial distance from the nest. At this point, add foxes, dogs, snakes and frogs the list of predators. If they make it to water, fish and even other snappers will prey on the inch-long youngsters. But once their shell hardens as they mature, the list of enemies reduces greatly.

Snappers mature between eight and 10 years. We’ve seen various estimates for snappers’ lifespan, with maximums as short as 30 years and as long as 50 years.

Snappers are mainly nocturnal animals, most active at dawn and dusk. They are largely ambush predators, spending most of the in water, buried in the bottom, waiting for a juicy fish or crayfish to wander by. They also eat aquatic plants.

Some scientists who study the animal dislike the name, common snapping turtle, believing it gives the wrong impression about the snapper’s population. Common refers to its wide range, but it gives the impression that snappers are plentiful, leading some to take conservation of the species less seriously. The preferred name: snapper or snapping turtle.

The snapper population is strong enough that the International Union for Conservation of Nature rates the species a “least concern” on the organization’s “extinction scale,” but numbers are dwindling and it is rare in parts of its range. Florida protects snappers mainly to prevent accidental takings of the lookalike and endangered alligator snapper.

On quick taxonomic note: You will see references to snappers divided into two subspecies, C s serpentina and C s floridana, AKA the Florida snapping turtle. The division, however, is not formally recognized.

Snappers are members of Chelydridae, the snapping turtle family.

Shark Valley, Everglades National Park

Photo Gallery — Click on photo for larger image

Published by Wild South Florida, PO Box 7241, Delray Beach, FL 33482.

Photographs by David Sedore. Photographs are property of the publishers and may not be used without permission.