Snapping turtles are fascinating

People speculate how both gangsters and snapping turtles cut off people's fingers, so when the Dickinson County Nature Center got a baby snapping turtle as an animal ambassador, it was named Capone after the legendary gangster Al Capone.

turtle in the snow

Common snapping turtles (Chelydra serpentina) are the largest turtles in Iowa, and they are quite fascinating creatures.

A snapping turtle can't hide in its shell.

Unlike most turtles, common snapping turtles can't hide in their shells. Most turtles can pull the head and legs into the shell to protect themselves from predators, and some species, like Blanding's turtles and ornate box turtles, have a hinged lower shell that can actually move upward and totally enclose the head and front legs. A snapping turtle's plastron --- the lower shell --- is only big enough to barely cover the body. It can retreat slightly underneath the carapace --- the upper shell --- but not anywhere near how a typical turtle can.

underside of a baby snapping turtle

Photo by Jarek Tuszynski, via Wikimedia Commons

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Perhaps that is why snapping turtles are more aggressive than a regular turtle, because they can't just retreat from predators but have to fight them off.

Snapping turtles have few predators as adults.

As full-grown turtles, snappers have one main predator --- humans. Snapping turtles are harvested for meat, and restrictions were introduced in Iowa to protect the species from overharvest.

Snapping turtles eggs and hatchlings have a variety of predators. Female snapping turtles will lay 25-50 eggs in spring and/or fall, but 60-100 percent of eggs are dug up by predators and eaten. However, snapping turtles can live up to 30 years, so only a small number of hatchlings need to survive each year for the species to live on.

Snapping turtles themselves are slow predators.

Common snapping turtles are not fast at catching food, so they will eat pretty much anything they can, including dead animals, aquatic invertebrates, aquatic plants, small fish, frogs, tadpoles, snails, leaches and even baby ducks and goslings. Small prey are swallowed whole, larger prey can be torn apart with their claws and swallowed.

common snapping turtle in grass

Most aquatic turtles, like snapping turtles, have a tongue that is fixed and can't move food around in the mouth. They have to eat underwater in order for the food to move around and be chewed.

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Common turtles are often lumped in with alligator snappers.

Common snapping turtles and alligator snapping turtles look a lot alike with their spiked shells, long tails and beaked mouths. However, alligator snapping turtles are much larger than common snappers. Alligator snappers can grow up to 39 inches in length, and a common snapping turtle's carapace --- top shell --- grows up to 14 inches. Alligator snapping turtles can weigh up to 176 pounds, while common snappers weigh up to 45 pounds.

alligator snapping turtle in grass

Alligator snapping turtles have a tongue that is shaped like a worm, and they use that to lure in prey while a common snapping turtle has a normal tongue.

Alligator snapping turtles may be found as far north as southeast Iowa, but they are not considered a resident of the state.

Their bites are bad, but their beaks are worse.

A common snapping turtle has a bite strength of up to 656.81 newtons of force, although a typical bite is around 209 newtons. However, a human can also apply 1,300 newtons of force between the second molars.

Bites are severe because of the sharp beak that is designed to help tear meat apart.

Want to find out more about turtles? Learn how to tell apart some common species of Iowa turtles here.