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Snapping Turtles

When was the last time you saw a snapping turtle? Snapping turtles are one of four species of turtles native to North Dakota.

The most common turtle is probably the western painted turtle. The smooth softshell turtle and the false map turtle are known only from the Oahe Reservoir in North Dakota, and the false map is very rare. Most of us will never observe one of those species.

The other turtle is the snapping turtle (Chelydra serpentina).

Snapping turtles are often listed as common in the state. However, the website Amphibians and Reptiles of North Dakota, maintained by the University of North Dakota and the Game and Fish Department, shows the snapping turtle’s documented distribution in the state lists only the counties of Pembina, Grand Forks, Griggs, Cass, Mountrail, Ward, McLean, Morton, Sioux, Slope, and Bowman. There was also a snapping turtle observed near Lake Metigoshe in Bottineau County a few years ago.

Snapping turtles prefer to spend time on the muddy bottom of a body of water. They are quite adaptable, and may live in marshes and swamps, ponds and lakes, or slow-moving rivers and streams. They basically just need cover and camouflage from the aquatic plants, and water deep enough for them to hibernate under the ice. Their lifestyle is rather sedentary, preferring water depths in which they can lay on the bottom and still have their head above water.

Not known to be particularly good swimmers, snapping turtles prefer to rest on soft, muddy bottoms of a body of water where they lay in wait for their prey which may include a variety of animals ranging from fish, amphibians, crayfish, worms, and snails, to the occasional small bird or mammal. They are, however, largely herbivorous, feeding on aquatic vegetation which makes up the bulk of their diet. They are also known to scavenge.

Snapping turtles, of course, are known for snapping and hissing at intruders. Their bite is legendary! I suspect many among us have heard stories about the potential of losing a finger to a snapping turtle. For example, as a kid I can remember watching an uncle tease a snapper with a wooden lathe, and the turtle promptly snapped it in half. They have powerful jaws and apparently not much of a sense of humor!

Further Reading

Chuck Lura has a broad knowledge of "Natural North Dakota"and loves sharing that knowledge with others. Since 2005, Chuck has written a weekly column, “Naturalist at Large,” for the Lake Metigoshe Mirror, and his “The Naturalist” columns appear in several other weekly North Dakota newspapers.
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