7 things you need to know about snapping turtles

It's nesting season for snapping turtles, which means you're now likelier to encounter them when you're out and about than any other time of the year.
Snapping turtles are listed as a species of 'special concern' in Ontario. (Andrea Bellemare/CBC)

Why did the snapping turtle try to cross the road?  At this time of year, the answer is likely because it wanted to lay some eggs.

But what to do if you spot a snapping turtle, which can be aggressive if provoked? Mary-Anne Cain, a senior nature interpreter with the Grand River Conservation Authority, appeared on The Morning Edition with Craig Norris on Tuesday to offer some tips on turtles. 

1. Why are they called snapping turtles?

Snapping turtles are the largest turtle species in Ontario, according to Cain, and the largest freshwater and terrestrial turtles in Canada. 

"They're brown, with a primitive-looking shell," she said. The shells are serrated at the back and the plastron, the bottom of the shell, is smaller than most other turtles.

"I guess that's why they get their name ...  because to protect themselves they snap because they cannot fit inside their shell, their legs, their long tail, or their forelegs can't fit inside," said Cain. "They're pretty much a shy turtle though, so unless approached or unless they feel threatened, they won't bother anybody." 

2. How strong is a snapping turtle bite?

According to a study in the Journal of Evolutionary Biology from 2002, a snapping turtle's actual jaw strength registered between 208 and 226 Newtons of force. By comparison, humans average a bite force of between 300 and 700 Newtons when we bite with our molars.

3. Why do we see snapping turtles at this time of year?

"The ones that are active right now are the reproductive females, they're the females that are trying to find a nesting spot to lay their eggs," said Cain.

The turtles will travel a long distance to find a good nesting spot during nesting season, which runs from early to mid-summer, and often travel along roads. They may nest on the shoulders of roads, because they like areas with gravelly soil and sand for making nests.

Cain said that she's even pulled a snapping turtle out of someone's garden mulch.

4. Why are they a species of special concern?

With their population declining, snapping turtles are designated a species of "special concern" in Ontario. That means it isn't yet threatened or endangered but could become so.  If a female nesting turtle is killed, it has a negative effect on the snapping turtle population.

"She would have to lay actually 1,400 eggs in order to replace herself," said Cain. 

Despite being a species of special concern, it is legal to hunt snapping turtles in Ontario.  A formal request to remove the snapping turtle from the game hunting list was denied by the Ontario Ministry of Natural Resources in 2011. 

5. What should I do if I see a snapping turtle?

"It's best to leave them alone in nature and not take them home and keep them in an aquarium," said Cain.

Instead, move the turtle off of a road if you find it there. Otherwise leave it alone. 

'You can use your car mat, a shovel, a blanket, but don't grab them from the front or the sides," said Cain. "You can coax them along from the back or scoop them up with your shovel to kind of get them across."

But whatever you do, push them in the direction the turtle is already headed, because they're going to go in that direction anyway, according to Cain. 

6. What if I have to pick up a turtle?

If you have to pick up a turtle, which Cain doesn't recommend, pick it up from the back of the shell on either side of the tail and drag them in the direction they're already headed.

"Never grab them by their tail," said Cain. "Their shell is actually part of their vertebrae, so they actually break their back and have major injuries by picking them up by their tail."

Cain also recommends not lifting the turtle very high in the air, because it's easier to drop the turtle and injure it.

7. Where can I report turtle sightings?

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