Turtle nesting time

Published 8:00 am Wednesday, June 23, 2004

By Staff
Last week I was driving the badly rutted two-track on our Marcellus farm, devoting my attention to a brilliant indigo bunting perched on the fence rather than the lane.
I felt a "thump, thump" under the tires and assumed another limb had fallen into the road. When I got out to move it, though, I felt bad to discover I'd run over a big old snapping turtle, much to her detriment.
Now is turtle nesting time when these prehistoric creatures venture from the safety of their murky waters and travel overland to find that one just right place to deposit their eggs.
What is that just right place? I don't think anyone really knows.
The turtles know, though. The following day I was pulling out of one of my prairies and saw another snapper in my path. I watched in fascination as she laboriously clawed at the ground with her hind feet. Despite the power of these muscular stubs she was making little progress for the dirt was packed cement hard by vehicle traffic.
She didn't care for my choice, though. The next day I could see that somehow she had made her way back to where I had first found her and had continued clawing, albeit fruitlessly, at the hard packed earth. She obviously wanted that spot above all others. What befuddles me is how did she find her way back to that exact same spot after the disorienting shovel ride?
Snapping turtles nest in open areas with nearby vegetation, preferably not far from their home water.
Both of these turtles were several hundred yards away from the stream in which they lived. I suppose distance is a matter of perspective but from a turtle's point I should think that to be quite a hike. Both had also traveled through much open area with adjacent vegetation yet chose to continue on in search of that magic something.
Often individual snappers return to the same nest site year after year. Perhaps the destination of these wanderers was dictated by long standing tradition.
Snapping turtles are our largest turtles, averaging about thirty-five pounds with shells well over a foot across.
The males are larger, the record being 19 inches across and 70 pounds. They live their 40 years or so of life in slow streams, shallow ponds and lakes. They reach sexual maturity at five to seven years.
Each summer in late June through July the females head up into the uplands where they dig a shallow, bowl-shaped nest and lay 20 to 40 eggs. She covers the eggs with dirt and returns home, free of further maternal duties.
The young turtles hatch in the fall. They may begin their way to water shortly after hatching or they may remain in the nest over the winter, stalling off their perilous journey until the following spring.
While in the water snapping turtles are not at all aggressive and rarely bite.
It's when on land that they earn the fearsome reputation after which they're named. Unlike most other turtles, the burly snapper cannot withdraw into its shell.
They're like the proverbial 20 pounds in a 10-pound bag. Not being fleet of foot, their only defense is to stand and fight, which they readily do.
Their bite is so swift and can inflict such damage that the only predator willing to take on an adult snapper is man.
Though snapping turtles are not considered rare, in many areas overharvesting has caused their numbers to seriously decline.
Unfortunately for the snapper, those care-free times are long gone.
Carpe diem.
Larry Lyons writes a weekly outdoor column for Leader Publications. Email him at larrylyons@beanstalk.net