As turtles go, snapping turtles look a little scary. For starters, they are big, the biggest turtle we see in northern Illinois by far. Plus they can appear to be a bit menacing, with their long claws and prominent noses. Their name certainly doesn't help either.
Snapping turtles will snap if provoked, but they aren't typically aggressive. In the water, they are usually calm, and they aren't considered a danger to swimmers. However, they can be a bit more aggressive on land.
The bottom shell of a snapping turtle, called a plastron, is quite small compared to its overall size, typically ranging from 8 inches to 18 inches long. The small size of their shells can leave them more at risk than some other turtles, particularly because it leaves them unable to retract their limbs and heads into their shells like other turtles.
Their overall length can be twice as long as their shells thanks to their long tails. They usually weigh between 8 pounds and 35 pounds. Males are typically larger than females.
Read on to learn some fun facts about snappers.
There's more than one kind
When you think of snapping turtles, it's likely the common snapping turtle that comes to mind. However, there are actually two snapping turtle species in the world, and both live in Illinois. The second snapping turtle species, the alligator snapping turtle, is far less common than the common snapping turtle.
In Illinois, alligator snapping turtles are endangered and seen infrequently. There have been less than 20 confirmed sightings in the state. Their range does not include Will County or the northeast part of the state and, even where they have been recorded populations, they are rare.
So how can you tell the difference between a common snapping turtle and an alligator snapping turtle? Alligator snapping turtles look almost dinosaur-like, with large spikes on their shells. On the other hand, common snapping turtles have smooth shells. Alligator snapping turtles can also be quite a bit larger, with males weighing between 175 pounds and 220 pounds.
They lived with the dinosaurs
Snapping turtles have been around for so long they lived with the dinosaurs! That means they survived the mass extinction that wiped dinosaurs off the earth some 65 million years ago. Snapping turtles have existed for about 90 million years, and they evolved right here in North America.
Words to know
Aggressive: Ready or likely to attack.
Menacing: To suggest danger or a threat.
Prominent: Obvious or sticking out from something.
Provoke: To cause a feeling or reaction.
Retract: To pull back.
Today, snapping turtles live in eastern North America, as far south as Florida and as far north as Nova Scotia and Alberta, Canada. Ancestors of the snapping turtle lived across Europe and Asia from about 40 million years ago until 2 million years ago, when they went extinct. So our two snapping turtles in North America — the common snapping turtle and alligator snapping turtle — are the only snappers in the world.
Snapping turtles have changed surprisingly little in the 90 million years of their existence. They still look and live much the same as they did in the age of the dinosaurs.
Their bite is no joke, but it might not be as bad as you think
They don't call them snapping turtles for nothing, and it's not just a myth that they can bite a finger off. They can and have done it. The average common snapping turtle can bite with a force of about 210 Newtons; alligator snapping turtles aren't quite as powerful, with a bite force of 160 Newtons. That may seem pretty impressive, but it helps to compare them to other animals.
Take lions. They can generate 4,450 Newtons of bite force. Even us humans can do much better than snapping turtles, generating 1,100 Newtons of bite force when biting with our second molars. Snapping turtles can cause a lot of damage with their bites in part because their jaws are sharp and edged.
It's always a good idea to give snapping turtles — and all wildlife — a wide berth, and this is especially true when they are on land. Remember, while these turtles aren't usually aggressive when in the water, they can be on land. This could be because snapping turtles spend most of their time in the water, usually only coming on land during nesting season.
They live long lives by wildlife standards
Many of our most common critters have short lifespans because of the threats they face living in the wild, like getting hit by a car or being hunted by other animals. For example, most raccoons don't survive past their second year, and those that do live an average of five years. White-tailed deer can live 20 years at most, but few live more than 10. Most live only two to three years. However, snapping turtles have a long lifespan by animal standards, living up to 30 years in the wild. In captivity they can live almost 50 years.
Snapping turtles are most at risk before they hatch, when nests are hunted by many other animals. Once they are bigger, they have few predators, although they are at risk for getting struck by vehicles when crossing roads.
It's not just snapping turtles that live long lives. Many turtles have long lifespans, and tortoises often live even longer. The oldest living land animal in the world is Jonathan the tortoise, who turned 191 in 2023. Some believe Jonathan, a Seychelles giant tortoise, may actually be older than that!
They are selective about where they live
Snapping turtles are aquatic creatures, spending most of their time in water except for nesting. However, not just any body of water will do. While you might find snapping turtles in all kinds of waterways, they prefer shallow waters with muddy bottoms. The muddy bottom is important because it helps the turtles hide from prey.
When looking for a meal, the turtles will sometimes bury themselves in muddy bottoms of the rivers, lakes and ponds where they live, leaving only their nostrils exposed. Then they wait, and when something tasty passes by, they snatch it.
When it comes to food, they aren't picky. If they can grab it, they will eat it. They are omnivores, which means they eat plants and animals. Common foods include fish, birds, aquatic invertebrates, amphibians and a wide assortment of plants.
Follow Willy's Wilderness on Facebook for more kid-friendly nature stories and activities.