Turtle tales

I’ve spent the past few weeks scooping nets into the pond at Captain Daniel Wright Woods with 4th – 7th grade students, studying what is lurking along the mucky bottom during a Pond Study program. Before the group spreads out along the shoreline, I show the students examples of animals that make their home in the pond. By far, the item that elicits the biggest reaction is a snapping turtle shell that is the size of a dinner plate. Hands shoot up in the air, and everyone has a story about an encounter with this hulking reptile—from witnessing a female digging a nest in a backyard garden to being stopped in a traffic jam caused by a turtle crossing the road.

These shy, prehistoric-looking common snapping turtles (Chelydra serpentina) spend most days of the year plodding along the soft, muddy bottoms of shallow waters, feeding lazily on whatever dragonfly nymph, minnow, water-lily, or dead animal dare linger within striking distance of their sharp beaks. They are visible at dawn and dusk, basking languidly in the water, not on a log like other turtles, exposing their top shells and snouts above the surface to increase their body temperature, which aids food digestion and movement.

In early June, females of this beastly reptile species emerge from the comforts of their watery worlds in search of terrestrial nesting sites, giving us a glimpse into their more notorious, defensive behaviors. When out of water, snapping turtles are vulnerable and cumbersome, sporting a very small bottom shell (called a plastron) as the only shield to their soft belly. Even clad with an armor-like top shell (called a carapace) and tough leathery skin, they are still vulnerable, as they are unable to tuck their legs and head inside their shells for protection like other types of turtles. Snapping turtles can weigh up to 60 pounds (about the size of one of the fourth-graders at the pond program!) and have a carapace up to 20 inches in diameter (about the size of a bicycle tire!). When on land, a snapper’s main defense mechanism is to face potential threats head on, hiss and bite. This intimidating behavior, combined with the large size, makes it easy to see how snapping turtles maintain their bad reputation.It’s helpful to understand that this behavior, though intimidating, is defensive not aggressive. So, when these large turtles cross a trail or road, it’s best to slow down and give them a wide berth. A female snapper crossing the road is pulled by her instinct to find an area with loose, sandy soil and stake her claim on a nesting site. Once she has found a suitable spot, she will nose around the ground, scraping with her hind feet before digging multiple nests. She will then deposit 20-30 eggs (about the size of a ping-pong ball) into a single nest. The other “false” nests are an effort to fake out the skunks, foxes, raccoons and minks that are looking for an easy meal. These extra nests are the female’s only effort to protect her offspring. Once she has deposited all of her eggs, she will fill in the nest, patting it down with her petite plastron before heading back to the pond.

During these long, sunny days of early summer, consider slowing down to see what these fascinating dinosaur-esque creatures are doing. Look for snapping turtles in any of the Lake County Forest Preserves with ponds or wetlands. Having trouble finding them on your own? Join the upcoming Walk with a Naturalist at Buffalo Creek Forest Preserve, or hop in the cockpit of a kayak and scan the shorelines at Independence Grove during a Quickstart Kayak program. If you want to get up close and personal with a snapping turtle, visit The Wildlife Discovery Center in Lake Forest, Illinois (adjacent to Middlefork Savanna Forest Preserve), which houses loads of rescued critters. Whether in the wild or in captivity, you can create your own turtle tale this summer.

A note about wild turtles: Spring and early summer is a time of turtle nesting and babies. It is common to see turtles walking on the road or turtle hatchlings around local ponds and creeks. They are super cute, but taking them home is never a good idea.

Local law enforcement officers and game wardens will fine people who take turtles from a natural area. Additionally, federally- and state-threatened and endangered species are protected by the Endangered Species Act. Permits are required for taking these plants and animals.

These attractive creatures continue to beat incredible odds to survive in today’s world. Turtles take up to 10 years before reaching sexual maturity. Taking a turtle out of the wild causes great harm to the future population of turtles. When the population is reduced beyond a certain point, adults are unlikely to find each other for mating. Many turtle species lays relatively few eggs, and the hatchlings are very vulnerable to predators during their first years of life.

Help protect wild turtle populations. Never keep wild turtles as pets or buy them from a pet store. Learn to enjoy turtles by observing them in their natural habitat, where they belong. If turtles live in your yard, keep them happy by building a pond and by landscaping with plants that provide shelter and food. This is one simple way to help the Lake County Forest Preserves protect and support future generations of turtles.

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