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Snapping Turtle

The snapping turtle (Chelydra serpentine) likes soft mud bottoms of wetlands, ponds, and streams with good vegetative cover. You may see them in April, as they emerge from their winter cover in a muskrat lodge or mud bank of a stream when the temperatures warm. Snapping turtles are found throughout Nebraska, as well as the eastern two-thirds of the US. They eat aquatic plants, dead or dying fish, frogs, insects, crayfish, and even small birds and mammals if the opportunity arises.

A snapping turtle's head is too big to pull all the way into the shell. For defense they snap at their enemies. The force of a snapper's bite is so great it can take off a person's finger if not careful. Instead of teeth, a snapping turtle has a beak.

The shell can be 8 inches to 18 inches long or more. The body of the snapping turtle is protected with a brown or black carapace, or upper shell. The underside is protected with a yellowish plastron. The scales on a snapper's legs and tail look like armor. This is another defense mechanism, since the legs and tail can't be pulled into the shell for protection.

According to Stephen VanTassel, UNL Wildlife Damage Management Project Coordinator,
"June is the month female snapping turtles leave the water and find a location to lay their eggs. She finds a spot that has enough sun, digs a hole, deposits the eggs, and then covers them with soil and even mud. Then she goes along her merry way. About 70 days later, depending on soil temperatures (warmer ,the eggs mature faster; cooler, eggs mature more slowly) the young turtles will emerge and seek water.

Despite how tough adult turtles are, (don't get bit by one), most turtle eggs never mature because they are depredated on by raccoons, skunks and other middle sized predators known as meso-predators. If you find a nest and you wish to protect the turtle eggs from predation, lay a 1" wire mesh over the spot and anchor it down. This will prevent predators from digging them up."

Some people catch and eat snapping turtles. In Nebraska, you must have a fishing permit to take, or attempt to take snapping turtles by any method.

Alan Bartels wrote a wonderful article on turtles in the October 2010 Issue of Prairie Fire. Read his article for a Nebraskan's personal experiences with turtles.

Jan Hygnstrom
Jan Hygnstrom
Former Project Manager, Agronomy & Horticulture

Jan Hygnstrom shares timely information about plants you might see on your acreage and topics related to managing onsite waste water systems. Jan's background includes a horticulture degree and work in UNL's Departments of Biological Systems Engineering and Pesticide Education. In 2001, along with several colleagues, Jan helped lay the groundwork for the formation of NOWWA, Nebraska's professional organization for those in the waste water industry. NOWWA works to protect human health and the environment by ensuring the proper handling of onsite waste water systems.