Humans are relative newcomers to the turtle’s scene. Snapping turtles have been around for 40 million years, and their ancestry dates back 200 million years—one of the oldest vertebrate groups still alive today. They have not changed much, either, except for their aquatic habit—scientists think turtles evolved on land. They shared the Earth with brontosaurs and mastodons.
An average snapping turtle weighs 17.5 pounds but can be as much as 40 pounds and longer than three feet. The shell is somewhat flat, thick, and rough-edged, though full of nerve endings (sensitive to scratches). On older turtles, the growth of algae can give the shell a greenish-gray cast. Some algae grow nowhere else but the backs of turtles.
A snapping turtle’s shell only partially covers the body, revealing muscular legs with sharp, curved claws and skin covered with “wart-like tubercles” (what the poet Carl Little describes as “marvelously gnarly”). The head is thick, stout, with a beaked snout and sharp jaw surfaces, not teeth. Raised bony plates form spikes along the tail.
It is reasonable, then, that snapping turtles are often mistaken for dinosaurs, especially by the very young seeing them for the first time.
Photo courtesy Geoffrey Day.