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Snapping turtle crossing the road. Photo: Matt Foley (submitted to NCPR's Hurricane Irene album)
Snapping turtle crossing the road. Photo: Matt Foley (submitted to NCPR's Hurricane Irene album)

Natural Selections: Turtles

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Snapping turtles aren't really that vicious, unless they are provoked. Martha Foley and Dr. Curt Stager talk about their peculiar anatomy, safe ways (for turtle and human) to help them across highways, and more.

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Snapping turtles are commonly found in the North Country. Martha Foley says that she had a camp on the Hudson River and that huge snapping turtles used to live in the weed beds.

“It’s amazing how big some of these get,” said Dr. Curt Stager of Paul Smith’s College.  According to him, the snapping turtles found locally can grow to be three feet in length and weigh 50 pounds. Alligator snapping turtles, which are found in the south, can be even bigger; they can reach weights of 200 pounds.

“Even these relatively smaller ones are pretty impressive,” said Stager. The turtles have bitten boat the oars of local boaters.  Stager said, “It sort of makes sense, if you look how they’re designed compared to something like a painted turtle, which also lives in the same habitat. If you scare a painted turtle, pick it up, it’ll pull into its shell pretty far in. Or if you have a box turtle, I’ll actually have a hinged bottom part of the shell that’ll help close up and protect it. But snappers can’t fit into their shell.”

Snapping turtles have shells that are only about one third of their body length. According to Stager, the turtles have to compensate for this lack of protection by being more aggressive and having long necks. They are often seen alongside roads in June when they’re looking for soft, sandy places to lay their eggs. Though drivers may wish to help the turtles cross roads, they need to be wary of the turtles.

“There’s no easy way to do it,” said Stager. “I always want to stop and try to help them. I’ll at least try to stop traffic and keep some mean person from trying to hit them or something.”

Stager said that he used to pick the turtles up by their tails to convey them across the road.  However, he says that he found that this strategy wasn’t a good one. “I learned later that’s not actually good, especially for the bigger ones, especially if they’re heavy. First of all, they may still be able to get you or scratch you with their claws, and then you might drop them which isn’t good. But also, just the weight of the shell and the body can dislocate their tail vertebrae and cause internal damage that might eventually kill them.”

Stager says that the best solution is either to take the risk and pick the turtle up by the shell, or to herd the turtle across the road.

Painted turtles are another species that is found locally. They don’t bite, but are hard to catch, and they have dark, smooth shells with a protein covering. It doesn’t hurt them to be picked up by their shells, but Stager warns people who watch them to make sure that the turtles aren’t placed on surfaces that they can fall off of. Since the turtles are used to having soft water to land in, they could injure themselves if they fall onto hard ground instead.

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