By Esther Lutz, East Central Illinois Master Naturalist for University of Illinois Extension in Coles County
Funny thing about mornings in the spring -- we never know what nature will reveal out of the blue. My husband and I were in for quite a surprise early one day as he left for work. No sooner had he pulled out of the driveway onto our country road than something made him stop and do a double-take. It seems we had an unusual visitor in the front yard. Since he thought I might be interested in seeing it, he called me on the phone.
"There's some kind of turtle out in the grass by the road," he told me. "The shell on that thing must be a foot wide or more. You might want to come out and take a look at it. It's huge!"
I had a hunch from his brief description that our visitor was probably a type of snapping turtle. I've come across them in years past crossing country roads about this time of year as they migrate between ponds or search for nest sites. When I saw the dirty, unpatterned shell in a cryptic shade of muddy gray, and the thick, heavy-duty legs and muscular neck, I knew that we needed to be really careful around this creature. Getting too close to its front end would NOT be a good idea!
Chelydra serpentina -- Common snapping turtle. Large in size and aggressive when on land, the common snapping turtle in Illinois is a native aquatic turtle with a relatively plain, unmarked shell in shades of dark brown, gray, olive, or black. The upper shell (carapace) has scutes (large scales) that are strongly serrated near the back of the carapace (except in older specimens). The lower shell on the belly side (the plastron) is small and cross-shaped and offers little protection for the underside, unlike that of other turtle species. The head is moderately large with a slightly hooked beak and is connected to a muscular, long neck. The lengthy tail has several sawtooth projections running along the upper surface and is considered to be a distinctive characteristic of snappers, looking quite prehistoric and dinosaur-like. The legs are thick and muscular, with broad feet, long strong claws, and extensive webbing between the toes.
The snapping turtles in Illinois inhabit almost any body of water, preferring shallow, mud-bottomed backwaters and ponds that contain lush vegetation and a healthy supply of aquatic animals. These turtles are highly adaptable, and eat almost anything they can catch including insects, crayfish, frogs, and other turtles. Aquatic vegetation is also grazed upon, and the diet of snapping turtles usually includes a high proportion of fish.
Few turtles have the speed or agility to catch fast-moving prey, but the snapping turtle often can. This species catches swimming prey by ambushing it, using their long, muscular necks to quickly strike out at the prey from a short distance. These turtles are colored to blend in with their environment, and with the long, bumpy neck, mud-colored body, and algae-covered shell, the snapping turtle illustrates this characteristic well.
Although chiefly aquatic, the snapping turtles, like all other turtles, must nest on land. This is why they are often found away from water and searching for suitable nest sites in the spring. The female usually lays 20 to 40 spherical, leathery-shelled eggs, generally from mid-May to mid-June, and only one clutch per year. The nest is usually a flask-shaped hole scooped out with the back feet. After laying the eggs, the female uses her back feet once again to pull dirt into the hole and pack it down. When the nest is covered, the mother abandons the eggs, never returning to see or care for her young. Once they hatch, the baby snappers are on their own.
What should we do when we encounter turtles in the landscape or see them slowly crossing yards and roads? Both aquatic and terrestrial turtles may find themselves in a number of hazardous situations when it comes to our human-dominated environment. Domestic pets may maul or otherwise harm the slow-moving reptiles, or because they are easy to catch, they may be mishandled by curious children or adults. Many fall prey to vehicles on the roadways, and are crushed or often hit while searching for nest sites during spring and summer. And turtles of all ages are struck while they migrate between water sources in the late summer and fall. The curbs along roads, parking lots and railroad tracks make it difficult for turtles to go from place to place naturally, and can often trap them.
So how can we help? A good rule of thumb is to never relocate a turtle far from where it was found. Since a turtle is usually familiar with its home area, it is always best to move it safely to an area close by. When moving a turtle off a road, we must use good judgment and consider rescuing it only if we can safely pull off onto the shoulder and not be endangered ourselves. (Using emergency flashers is a good idea.) Smaller turtles can be safely lifted using one or both hands near the back (tail end) of the shell. Or a broad, flat shovel may be slid under a larger turtle, and it may be placed in a box or container until it can be released nearby. (Water is not needed as long as the turtle will be held only a few hours.) The snapping turtles are best left alone, as they can be dangerous to handle for an inexperienced person. If you must handle one, always keep the hands on the back legs or only on the rear portion of the shell. It is best to grab the turtle by the hind legs (one in each hand) and use them as handles to move it safely. The long tail should never be used to lift it since the weight of the turtle's body is too great and can sever its spine. Of course, after handling any turtle one must wash the hands with hot water and soap or disinfectant wipes as soon as possible so as not to risk contracting salmonella, a disease commonly carried by turtles that is easily transferred to humans.
Turtles play an important ecological role as prey species for larger animals, but also because they kill diseased and weakened fish and clean up dead or decaying animal and plant matter in Illinois' fresh water systems. They are generally not a pest to people and prefer to steal away quietly when encountered in the water.
The snapping turtle in our yard was most likely a female in search of a nest site for laying eggs. It snapped aggressively at us a few times as we prodded it with a rake handle to hurry it along. Moving in a westerly direction towards the nearest pond, it had only a little more land to cover. We left it alone as it continued on its way, and I could not locate it when I checked later in the day. Judging by its size and by the cracks and chips in its shell, I would say it was a fairly old specimen, but it looked healthy and robust. As long as our cats didn't interfere, it would probably reach its destination without any trouble. But even if the cats were curious, I wasn't worried. Something tells me that turtle wouldn't have one bit of trouble taking care of itself.