Nature Nearby: Pending blessed event in Magruder Park
By FRED SEITZ — Early on a warm day in June, I was walking my pseudo-fierce dog in Magruder Park. As we ventured downhill, I spotted a common snapping turtle (Chelydra serpentina, for Latin buffs) depositing a number of cream colored, ping pong ball-sized eggs into a hole in the ground. While pseudo fierce wanted to investigate, in the interests of motherhood and not having my dog’s nose snapped, I restrained him and watched Mom Turtle attend to her maternal task. When I returned later in the day, the hole was covered with dirt — presumably Mom had finished and returned to her swamp or one of the streams in the park. I have returned to this egg laying location frequently since that day, though hatchlings may not emerge until mid-August or early September. Interestingly, I have not seen evidence of egg or hatchling predators (foxes, herons, other turtles and sometimes crows) near the nest. These usual suspects may be waiting for the hatchlings to emerge.
While snapping turtles have reputations as being aggressive, they are more likely to avoid what they perceive as potential threats by simply returning to their watery homes. They consume a lot of aquatic invertebrates, such as small frogs and other turtles — pretty much whatever they can find and swallow. The adults can weigh more than 20 pounds. Though there have been reports of much larger snappers weighing in around 75 pounds, let’s hope our locals don’t turn into local Godzillas.
While specific documentation is sparse, some snappers have been estimated to be nearly a century old. In winter, they typically remain in water or mud, occasionally sticking their snouts up for air.
As you might guess, snappers have been a common ingredient in turtle soup, though their exposure to some toxins in the environment may make them a less desirable choice than other species of turtles. People sometimes keep them as pets, though I have found them to be nonresponsive to calls of “Here, Snapper!” And their necks are quite long; they can reach back and snap at someone trying to pick them up from behind. Unfortunately, some people have picked up snappers by their tails, which can seriously damage the turtle’s spine.
Like many of us, snapping turtles have southern relatives. For our local snapper, it’s the alligator snapping turtle (Macrochelys temminckii), which is mostly limited to Georgia, Alabama and other southern states. Despite its more foreboding name, the common snapper is allegedly more aggressive than its southern and considerably larger kin.
These local reptiles evolved in North America about 90 million years ago and invaded Europe and Asia about 40 million years ago, but they no longer occupy Europe. I hope that Momma Turtle’s cache of little snappers will successfully emerge in a few weeks and take up residence in our nearby swamp and streams, thus carrying on their long biological tradition.