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The Snapping Turtle

10/03/08 5:55PM By Ted Levin
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AP Photo/T.Talbot
(HOST) Naturalist and commentator Ted Levin recently gave a helping hand to a newly hatched turtle, and he's still thinking about the experience.  

(LEVIN) A few days ago in Hanover near Occum Pond, a hatchling snapping turtle sat alongside a road as if contemplating its future, which would have included trying to cross the road had I not intervened. The turtle was black, the size of a half-dollar, all legs and tail and neck. Its eyes were bright and inquisitive; its face hawk-like, though it never snapped as I held it between my thump and forefinger. On its cross-shaped lower shell, called the plastron, was a soft yellow oval, the remnant of the yolk sac. The carapace, or upper shell, was crenellated, the margins spiky. Three rows of sharp little points ran down the middle of the carapace like an archipelago.
    
There's not much room for a hatchling snapper to withdraw into its shell, the chelonian equivalent of being born too big for your breeches, a lifelong morphological fact that probably contributes to an adult turtle's irascible disposition on land.
   
When I released the snapper, it sank into the ooze and then swam away - four little feet paddling hard - a plume of silt trailing behind. It's an easy meal for a predator - bass or bullfrog or heron - and that's the primary reason a female snapping turtle lays a clutch of 25 to 50 eggs (sometimes more than 80) beginning at age four or five and continuing every year for fifty years or more.
   
As with rattlesnakes, much of this turtle's nature is clouded by exaggeration and myth. Nothing is more misunderstood than its bite, the key element of snapping turtle lore.
   
When I grew up on coastal Long Island, suburban legend claimed that a large, hatchet-faced snapping turtle - common in streams, sumps, and tidal marshes of the South Shore  - could break a broom handle in one bite. Years later, I tested the hypothesis, which proved false.
   
But snapping turtles are clever. In late summer when the shallows of eastern Lake Ontario heat up, and large submerged mats of algae rise off the bottom and drift. These mats, teeming with invertebrates and small fish, are a floating buffet for migrating shorebirds.  Snapping turtles are also attracted to the mats, and lurk beneath, pulling hapless birds through the mats by their feet.
   
Snapping turtles have been haunting North American wetlands for approximately 80 million years. They are our truest, oldest, meanest-looking turtles. They were present when dinosaurs lived and died, and had been laying their round, white eggs in sandy loam and glacial till for millions of years when the first Amerindians walked over from Asia. Snapping turtles have witnessed the drift of continents, the birth of islands, the drowning of coastlines, the rise and fall of mountain ranges, the spread of prairies and deserts, the comings and goings of glaciers.
   
So, for the lowly, misunderstood snapping turtle I released in Occum Pond, global warming may not be a catastrophe. It might even be an opportunity.

AP Photo/Toby Talbot

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