Swimming and Kayaking Among Snapping Turtles : Be Glad At Least There Aren’t Any Komodo Dragons or Saltwater Crocodiles Nearby
While kayaking on Bush Pond on the Ledyard/North Stonington border the other day I noticed something thrashing around among the lily pads.
At first I thought it was a cormorant, or perhaps a beaver, but as I drew closer I realized it wasn’t one creature, but two, and they were engaged in an activity typically carried out in the wild this time of year by birds, bees, and in this instance, humongous snapping turtles.
I quickly detoured, not just to give them privacy, but because these were truly monstrous creatures, seemingly as big as manhole covers, and on occasion I’ve witnessed what their powerful jaws can do to a tree branch when I’ve tried to help them cross a road.
Actually, I needn’t have worried, because snapping turtles are unlikely to attack a human in the water, let alone a kayak, especially when they’re otherwise distracted.
They will snap, though, if provoked on land, where females venture in spring to lay their eggs. The day after my encounter with the mating pair I saw a tiny snapper the size of a quarter swimming in the pond, though it couldn’t have been their offspring so soon – turtle eggs can take up to three months to hatch.
Connecticut’s largest freshwater turtle, the common snapper typically grows to more than a foot in length and weighs more than 35 pounds, but a legendary one named Old Joe prowling Ledyard’s Long Pond years ago appeared twice that size when I observed it a few times.
The common snapping turtle ranges from Canada to Florida and from the East Coast to the Rockies, and it truly is a fearsome, prehistoric-looking creature, with a ridged carapace, leathery head, serpentine tail and beak-like snout. It’s a little unsettling to observe one while you’re swimming, but the Connecticut Department of Energy and Environmental Protection insists humans have little to fear – snappers are mainly interested in such prey as insects, spiders, worms, fish, frogs, snakes, birds, crayfish and small mammals. They also eat plants and carrion.
It’s best to avoid them on land, except when they’re in danger of being struck by a car.
DEEP urges people not to try picking up terrestrial turtles, especially not by their tails, which can damage their spines. Use a shovel or a branch to encourage them to safety, guiding them in the same direction they were heading.
Although there have been reports of injuries from turtles provoked on land, including amputated fingers, their bite is actually less powerful than that of humans. According to a 2002 study in the Journal of Evolutionary Biology, a snapping turtle’s actual jaw strength registered between 208 and 226 newtons of force. By comparison, human molars bite with a force of between 300 and 700 newtons. One newton is the force required to accelerate an object with a mass of 1 kilogram 1 meter per second per second.
Using the basic formula of F=MA (force equals mass times acceleration) it would take approximately 487.9 newtons to propel me off my feet if I accidentally stepped on a snapping turtle.
The common snapping turtle (Chelydra serpentina) found in local waters is not to be confused with the alligator snapping turtle (Macrochelys temminckii) that habituates the southeastern United States, which is one more reason I’ll never live in Florida.
Alligator snappers, with shells marked by rows of spikes and raised scales resembling plated dinosaurs, have been known to grow in excess of a yard long and weigh more than 200 pounds. They lure prey by lurking in the mud, opening cavernous mouths and wiggling worm-like tongues. I’ll try to remember this the next time I’m sloshing through the Everglades at night.
Despite their malevolent appearance and prickly disposition, alligator snapping turtles are not the most dangerous reptiles. In addition to myriad poisonous and constricting snakes – king cobras, black mambas, anacondas, pythons – any number of lizards or alligators can absolutely ruin your day.
It’s a tossup which would be worse – a Komodo dragon or saltwater crocodile.
The Komodo dragon (Varanus komodoensis), a native of Indonesia, can grow to 10 feet long and weigh 150 pounds. They ambush prey, sometimes including humans, and can bring down a large mammal with a swipe of its powerful tail before ripping its throat with razor-sharp teeth and claws.
The saltwater crocodile (Crocodylus porosus), the world’s largest reptile that lives in Eastern India, Southeast Asia and Northern Australia, can grow to more than 20 feet long and weigh more than a ton. It occupies the apex of the food chain, capable of devouring sharks and quite efficient at dragging unlucky humans into the water, drowning them and swallowing the carcasses whole.
So by comparison, a snapping turtle is pretty harmless.
All the same, I try to keep all my fingers out of the water whenever I’m paddling in a murky pond.