Self-Defense Explains Why Snappers Snap

Why did the female snapping turtle cross the road? To get to the other side, of course.

It's June, mating season for the snapping turtle, and the females are out, doggedly searching for a good place to lay their eggs.

But if you encounter one of these reptiles with its large size (some weigh more than 50 pounds), long neck, and spiny tail, don't panic.

The snapping turtle's reputation for having a vicious temper is largely unearned. In its preferred aquatic environment, it avoids people and seeks protection at the bottom of ponds or lakes. And on land, it won't hiss, snap, or use its powerful jaws unless provoked.

Provocation, says Perry Ellis, a naturalist at the Massachusetts Audubon Society's Trailside Museum in Milton, might involve waving fingers in the turtle's face or picking up the animal.

A snapping turtle's perceived temper is really self-defense. The bottom shell lining its underbelly is much smaller than the top shell - the carapace - leaving its neck and tail exposed. Unlike other turtles, it cannot pull inside its shell. Unless picked up at the base of the carapace, a snapping turtle may reach around with its long neck and chomp down.

Patti Steinman, an education coordinator at the Trailside Museum, says the best thing to do with a snapping turtle crossing the road is just to let it get to the other side. "The female will always continue in the direction she's headed," Ms. Steinman says.

Other aquatic turtle species have had their wetland habitats destroyed by development. In Colorado, however, the snapping turtle has adapted to a changing environment.

"Snapping turtles are not that picky," says Bill Manci, president of the Rocky Mountain Aquarium Foundation in Fort Collins, Colo.

In developing areas on the eastern edge of the Rockies, the snapping turtle has moved into new man-made ponds, lakes, and reservoirs.

But because of their reclusive natures, says Ken Kehmeier, a biologist with the Colorado Division of Wildlife, "most people don't even know they're there."

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