The other day as I was driving on a country road outside Ithaca I saw an impressively large snapping turtle (Chelydra serpentina) poised on the verge, head high as if looking both ways in order to cross. A bright buttercup petal lay plastered on the weathered shell. I was smitten.
Remembering stories of drivers running over reptiles on purpose, out of fear or cruel impulses, I parked my car by the side of the road with flashers on, got out and approached the beast to assess the responsibilities of an amateur naturalist. Even though I kept at a discreet distance the turtle quickly sensed my presence and froze. This was a good opportunity for observation.The tail had matted strands of dark-green algae entwined on the spines.
The neck had numerous folds, ornamented with warty bits called tubercles. The claws were impressive. The whole appearance suggested the muddy depths whence they come.
I retreated. The turtle then reversed headlong into the ditch, traveled along it at a fast clip away from me, only to emerge ready to head back across the road as originally intended. Meanwhile the owner of a house on the far side of the road (I call him the resident hereafter) walked over to see whether there was an emergency. He said that the turtle had lived in the pond behind his house since 1989 and his family had named him Harry.
One does not pick up a snapping turtle without extreme care. Recently the Boston Globe ran a story titled “People keep spotting huge snapping turtles in the middle of the road. Here’s why” warning motorists to beware snapping turtles on the move. The resident said that his wife had assisted Harry across the road with a broom on occasion. One website recommends using a shovel to lift a turtle across the road. That would have been a disaster with Harry. The resident said he had tried to pick him up once and it had the opposite result. Harry was able to lash his tail and move all four legs and snapping head so vigorously that he had to drop him immediately. I left Harry in the care of the owner of Harry’s pond.
But I began to wonder about Harry’s habits and set off on a trek through the literature of snapping turtles, the results of which lead me to think that Harriet would perhaps be a better name. It is hard to distinguish males from females without having them side by side on their backs, which is almost impossible when they are alive. Snapping turtles are reserved in the water, but pugnacious on land, despite the fact that mature individuals are almost predator free. No one wants to mess with the rough-edged jaws of a snapping turtle’s head, which has a far reach.
The top shell of a turtle is called the carapace, and the bottom shell is called the plastron. Males have modifications of the size and shape of the plastron that make the mating ritual more feasible, morphologically speaking. A wikihow article indicates that the size of the claws is a helpful indicator. I would say that Harriet is the better name from that point of view. Like most reptiles, snapping turtles do not pair bond, and in a marvelous feat of evolutionary sleight of hand, one might say, females can store sperm from several male partners for long periods of time, even several years, before egg laying. Most accounts suggest that the majority of snapping turtles seen crossing roads are females in search of nesting sites on land–sometimes as far as a mile from their pond of residence. When I went back to the owner of Harry’s pond to query why he chose the name Harry, he said he had no idea whether it was male or female–could snapping turtles be hermaphrodites he asked (in general the answer is no, but see below)–and proceeded to show me two places in the gravel around his car where Harry had been digging, presumably to lay eggs. Road embankments, lawns, gardens, muskrat homes–the perfect spot is a work of trial and error apparently.
Trailing around after female snapping turtles in the wild to ascertain egg-laying habits is not easy. They can move surprisingly quickly through places that are uncomfortable for humans. An account reported in 1911 by Professor J. W. P. Jenks and archived, in the words of Dallas Lore Sharp, in the book pictured above (pp. 29-30) by Harold Babcock, goes this way:
Leaving my horse unhitched, as if he, too, understood, I slipped eagerly into my covert for a look at the pond. As I did so, a large pickerel sloughed a furrow out through the spatterdocks, and in his wake rose the head of an enormous turtle. Swinging slowly around, the creature headed straight for the shore, and without a pause scrambled out on the sand.
She was about the size of a big scoop-shovel; but that was not what excited me, so much as her manner, and the gait at which she moved; for there was method in it and fixed purpose. On she came, shuffling over the sand toward the higher open fields, with a hurried, determined seesaw that was taking her somewhere in particular, and that was bound to get her there on time.
I held my breath. Had she been a dinosaurian making Mesozoic footprints, I could not have been more fearful. For footprints on the Mesozoic mud, or on the sands of time, were as nothing to me when compared with fresh turtle eggs on the sand of this pond.
But over the strip of sand, without a stop she paddled, and up a narrow cow-path into the high grass along a fence. Then up the narrow cow-path on all fours, just like another turtle, I paddled, and into the high, wet grass along the fence.
I kept well within the sound of her, for she moved recklessly, leaving a trail of flattened grass a foot and a half wide. I wanted to stand up,–and I don’t believe I could have turned her back with a rail,–but I was afraid if she saw me that she might return indefinitely to the pond; so on I went, flat to the ground, squeezing through the lower rails of the fence, as if the field beyond were a melon-patch. It was nothing of the kind, only a wild, uncomfortable pasture, full of dewberry vines, and very discouraging. They were excessively wet vines and briery. I pulled my coat-sleeves as far over my fists as I could get them, and with the tin of sand swinging from between my teeth to avoid noise, I stumped fiercely, but silently after the turtle.
She was laying her course, I thought, straight down the length of this dreadful pasture, when, not far from the fence, she suddenly hove to, warped herself short about, and came back, barely clearing me, at a clip that was thrilling. I warped about, too, and in her wake bore down across the corner of the pasture, across the powdery public road, and on to a fence along a field of young corn.
I was somewhat wet by this time, but not so wet as I had been before wallowing through the deep, dry dust of the road. Hurrying up behind a large tree by the fence, I peered down the corn-row and saw the turtle stop, and begin to paw about in the loose soft soil. She was going to lay.
I held on to the tree and watched, as she tried this place, and that place, and the other place–the eternally feminine. But the place, evidently was hard to find. What could a female turtle do with a whole field of possible nests to choose from? Then at last she found it, and whirling about, she backed quickly at it, and tail first, began to bury herself before my staring eyes.
The account ends here. I am prepared to forgive Professor J. W. P. Jenks his comment about “the eternally feminine” since he had such a difficult time with all that wallowing and warping about in briery and dusty places, but I am not prepared to forgive him if he took her eggs. Why was he carrying a pail of sand between his teeth?
Once the laying is over, females return home, never to know their offspring or their fates, which is a good thing. There is 90% predation of the eggs and hatchlings, which are only an inch long, from many predators–crows, raccoons, snakes, foxes, the list is long. However, this high infant mortality is balanced by the well-defended morphology and contentious attitude of the mature snapping turtle, which is an evolutionarily successful organism, adaptable to human disturbance. Interestingly, sex determination is temperature-dependent in turtle species. Snapping turtle eggs maintained at 68 degrees F yield only female hatchlings, while those maintained at 73-75 degrees F yield only males. A mix of the sexes is produced at 70-72 degrees F. In green sea turtles the opposite is true; the higher temperature range produces females only–and intersex hatchlings can appear at intermediate temperatures!
While scientists use clinical terms like “reproductive biology” and “the mating strategies” of organisms, nonspecialists form descriptions using casual words that apply to humans as well. It is rare to have the chance to observe snapping turtles in the act of love-making because they are nocturnal, though females search for nest sites in daylight, and copulation is an aquatic activity. The sitio tiempo press blogger in an essay titled “Summer, snapping turtles’ mating dance, and the glory of life” writes of feeling a “common humanity” after observing mating turtles and a writer for the Pittsburg Post-Gazette in a piece titled “Outdoors: Snapping turtle courtship unusual shell game” shows near reverence for the “reptilian rapture” he observes. Both writers enhanced my perception of snapping turtles and caused me to wonder about the evolutionary history of love-making. I have a book waiting to be read titled The Evolution of Beauty: How Darwin’s Forgotten Theory of Mate Choice Shapes the Animal World–and Us by Richard O. Prum, an ornithologist. It appears the thesis focuses on the importance of beauty in pair-bonded, nonreptilian organisms. Tank-like and unfeathery, except for that buttercup petal on Harriet’s shell, snapping turtles are not beautiful, like almost all birds are, but they seem to be good lovers.
My last sight of the snapping turtle was a steady, unblinking eye peering at me through the vegetation of the ditch as she plotted a return home.
This is such a wonderful post, Elizabeth. It has plot and interesting characters, and humor, and curiosity. All the things that make a wonderful essay. Thank you.
Susan, thank you for your comment! I felt so compelled to write about my encounter with this beautiful snapping turtle, even though cornered by circumstances and obligations that prevented much time for writing. Whenever I press ‘Publish”, I am desolate with misgivings about my offerings, so thank you! my best to you, Elizabeth