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.
Deer. To a “country” person they are the competition; eating crops, flowers and anything else that might be tasty. To a “city” person they are novel animal to be admired with wonder and curiosity. Where I live, on the edge of suburbia, we have members of both camps. We have the gardeners who support the multi-million dollar industry of deer repellents and the hunters who see a nice cut of venison. I have seen people who live just houses away oggle at the deer as if they are some sort of rarity when they are in their yards nearly every day.
This seeming lack of awareness of the natural world is a by-product of our increasing need for convenience and the false sense of the world that comes with it. When the world is hyper-organized down to the minute and instant gratification controls our brains we lose the ability to stop and listen, to be aware of the world around. Many times I have watched as three or four deer stand within 25 feet of a person walking on the road, completely oblivious to the deer. They are too preoccupied with their phone, music or simply putting one foot in front of the other. Undoubtedly, this same person is the one who is amazed when they see DEER in the neighborhood. Awareness requires the ability to break the cycle of convenience and realize that the world is the way it is, not for our convenience, but for itself.
I am privileged to live in a house with about 4 acres of land surrounded by suburban sprawl. My property is an oasis for the local wildlife. Our land has become an ideal location for the local deer herd to raise their fawns. We have two resident does, one with twins and one with a single fawn. We get to watch these fawns as they grow from wobbly legged infants to fool-hardy adolescents to sub-adults getting kicked out of the home range by their moms. We regularly watch as they run laps around our yard, chasing each other as they practice the manuvers to evade predators.
When playing the does seem just as apathetic as moms at the park on their cell phones. They are there but don’t really seem to care what the kids are up to as long as there isn’t any screaming or crying.
Together these fawns grow up in a very different world than some of their relatives. They live in an artificial world where a car is their primary predator, where food is abundant and the snow doesnt stay deep in the winter. These deer are well fed and tolerant of humans and their habits.
There is a never ending battle with the deer to grow any kind of flower or vegetable. This summer has been the first time in three years we actually have hostas on our property. The previous two year the deer have mowed them down to the ground. They have broken our fence around the vegetable garden and decimated a crop of tomatoes, swash and broccoli. Even with all these negative I must realize that they, like me, are just trying to survive. I have the luxury of growing food more for recreation than neccesity while the deer, on the other hand, have winter to prepare for.
The more I watch the deer the more I am reminded of just how good we humans have it. How priviledge we are to take the very basic needs of life for granted. We can complain about trivial things and never have to think about more than “what we want for dinner”. By taking the very needs of life for granted we have lost our awareness of their importance. We don’t think about where our water or food comes from as long as it comes. We don’t question the strength of the wi-fi or the temperature on the thermostat as long as it’s there. Our conviences have numbed us to the reality of the natural world. I envy the deer and other animals for they must take nothing for granted and must have gratitude for every sunrise they get to see.
Marmots, rock chuck, whistle pig, whatever you want to call it they are the largest members of the squirrel family here in North America. Like their close relatives the groundhog (also called a woodchuck) marmots are ground dwelling. Unlike their close relatives, marmots live in the mountainous regions of North America. Living in an amongst the rock slides and scree fields in and around mountains. Marmots live in loose family groups where each member looks out for the other members. The first sight of danger evokes a loud whistle from the look out sending the other members running for cover. This loud alarm whistle is where the name “whistle pig” comes from.
Marmots will graze all summer putting on weight to survive through winter. Together with other marmots, they will sleep out the winter in a hairy ball tucked deep in the rocks in a den tunnel.