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TVA River Neighbors

Interesting creatures found in Valley waters

Common Snapping Turtles command respect

If you spot one in the water, no big deal. If you run across one on land, you’d be wise to back off. This is one turtle with an attitude.

The Common Snapping Turtle has earned a well-deserved reputation for aggression. The ill temper it seems to display when confronted on land is well-documented: it will attack at the slightest provocation, raising its body high off the ground and snapping with such force that it lunges forward.

Although the turtle’s ferocious nature might suggest that it is spoiling for a fight, this behavior is simply an excellent form of self-defense. In the water, the snapper is quite shy, preferring to swim away if disturbed. But it feels threatened when encountered on land and will not hesitate to defend itself, striking repeatedly with amazing speed and force. Anyone who happens to be near this turtle would do well to recall the fact that one bite from a Common Snapping Turtle can easily snap a broom handle in two.

A lesson in turtle anatomy may help to explain this aggressive behavior. Most turtles are rightfully thought of as slow-moving, placid creatures that retreat into the protection of their shells if disturbed. For the Common Snapping Turtle, however, this is not an option: its body is disproportionately large in relation to its shell. In other words, it simply cannot fit! This vulnerability no doubt contributes to the snapper’s tendency to confront an enemy on land, where it is more awkward, exposed, and unable to easily escape.

Some fast facts on the Common Snapping Turtle

  • Widest distribution of any freshwater turtle in North America. Found throughout the Tennessee River system; especially plentiful in larger reservoirs in the southern and western parts of the Valley. Sometimes confused with the even larger Alligator Snapping Turtle, which is more common in the Mississippi River system.
  • Can reach impressive proportions as adults. Some individuals weigh up to 45 pounds in the wild; upwards of 75 pounds in captivity. Upper shell length around 17 to 18 inches. Life span is usually 30 to 40 years.
  • Mostly nocturnal, found in all kinds of aquatic habitats from rivers and streams to ponds and reservoirs. Prefers soft mud bottoms in warm shallows and abundant vegetation. (Note: Most of the turtles observed by reservoir users in the Tennessee Valley are likely to be one of the “basking turtles,” which are often lined up in the sun on a half-submerged log. These include Cooters, Sliders, Stinkpots, and Eastern Painted turtles.)
  • Primitive, almost prehistoric-looking, in appearance. Massive head; neck is very long when extended. Powerful hooked jaw, webbed feet with long claws. Very long saw-edged tail. Brownish-blackish upper shell, lower shell is smaller and lighter in color.
  • Most often encountered on land in late spring and early summer when females leave the water to lay eggs, often traveling considerable distances to find a sunny spot with little or no vegetation. She digs a hole and deposits several dozen eggs, similar in size and shape to ping-pong balls; the eggs are left to hatch on their own in about two to three months.
  • Opportunistic feeders; diet consists of waterfowl, fish, small mammals, invertebrates, and plants. They have an uncanny ability to find dead animals and often prey upon diseased and dying fish. Their role as scavengers makes snappers an important component of aquatic ecosystems.
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