The common snapping turtle (Chelydra serpentina) belongs to an ancient lineage of turtles. If you could take a time machine back 80 million years ago you would recognize their ancient ancestors as nearly identical to the modern form. Snapping turtles have filled the same ecological niche since they first diverged from other turtles millions of years ago. They are the garbage disposals of freshwater lakes, rivers, and wetlands. They are opportunistic feeders, eating anything plant or animal, dead or alive. I have watched them pluck mallard ducklings from the surface of the water and had them rob a full stringer of fish. They are good at what they do. It is this opportunistic nature that has allowed their continued success over the last 100 million years or so. They survived the meteor impact that took out the dinosaurs and most other complex life. The slow metabolism and opportunistic feeding habits of snapping turtles surely allowed them to survive the apocalypse at the end of the cretaceous.
Snapping turtles get their name from their aggressive nature when on land. Unlike most turtles, snapping turtles cannot retreat into their shell for protection. The bottom of their shell, the plastron, is little more than a skid-plate offering no refuge for limbs, tail or head. To overcome this lack of protection the snapping turtle has an enlarged head and very powerful bite. Alligator snapping turtles have been measured with over 1500lbs per square inch in bite force. That is more than enough pressure to sever digits or inflict severe lacerations.
Instead of hiding in their shells they simply sit and wait for the fight to come to them. A threatened turtle on land will position itself head toward the threat, raising the rear of its shell of the ground. Get too close and SNAP!
Watching a snapping turtle walk it is easy to image them strolling across a beach covered in dinosaur footprints. There is something primeval about their gait and swagger that airs a confidence that even bipedal apes can appreciate.
Despite their legendary bite and temperament, snapping turtles are quite docile when handled. After a couple of snaps and wiggles, a turtle in hand simply hangs on for the ride. I have helped dozens of snapping turtle (and other species) cross the road. The safest way to pick up a snapping turtle is to grab the carapace (top half of the shell) just behind the hind legs. Get a firm grip and expect some claws to try to scratch you off. This grip will be out of range of the bite despite the turtles best efforts.
Snapping turtles have changed very little from the time of the dinosaurs. There have not been any significant environmental pressures to affect change and they keep on doing what they’re doing. They serve an important role in the freshwater ecosystems of the Eastern United States. Provided compassionate and educated humans can help them across the road and give them a place to live I’m sure they will continue to thrive for millions of years to come.