Chelydra serpentina. Who? The name when spoken conjure up in my mind, some hideous dragonesque creature from the depths of the darkest waters. Very similar to the descriptions of Cuthulu! And sadly, that stigma often lands upon this beautiful cousin. The Common Snapping Turtle, is native specifically to North America (however can be found in South American countries as well), being found almost as far north as Hudson Bay (though not often further north than Algonquin Park). While on a wetland course, the students I had with me were very interested in studying these beings up close. Of course, the name alone was reason enough for them not to get too close! The snapping turtles were found on the banks of the marshlands, right along a backroad, digging nests in the gravel. Snapping turtles rarely leave the waters. Usually only the females leave their swamps to dig their nests and lay their eggs. However on occasion the adults (and young) can be found basking in the sun. Though more often they do this by floating on the surface of the water, often to the surprise of a person who just fell out of their canoe... I used the butt of a fishing spear to prod one of the females we happened across, to demonstrate to the students her powerful jaws and speed. She immediately reared up on all four legs. She emitted this strange hiss that didn't seem to come from her mouth, but from the shell (though it was from the mouth, the sound just seemed to echo from the shell). I prodded again, hoping to demonstrate how vicious of a bite these shelled creatures have. Nothing. I tapped the shell, hoping to watch her long neck (which can reach halfway across their body, and sometimes more) lunge out at the spear. Nothing. I rested my spear in front of her, and turned to my students to tell them that usually these turtles were much more aggressive, when suddenly I felt the end of my spear splinter with a loud "SNAP!" I turned in time to see her slowly bring her head back to it's original position. Snapping turtles are omnivorous, and will often scavenge any dead substance in the water, whether it be a dead fish, or rotted plant matter. However, they will actively hunt, feasting on small to medium sized fish, crayfish, mussels, insects, amphibians, rodents such as voles, and reptiles such as snakes and smaller turtles (including infant snapping turtles). Their relative, the Alligator Snapping Turtle Macrochelys temminckii, whom resides in the southern United States, is much larger than the common snapping turtle, however is not as aggressive as the common. The Common Snapping Turtle is recognized for the deaths of many goslings and ducklings each year throughout Ontario. Adult ducks and geese (even swans) are sometimes found with missing feet or toes, often caused by being maimed by snapping turtles. While heading to the bay where we would be harvesting cattails (Greater Reed-mace), the students and I came across a very large painted turtle, whose shell had a large section missing from it. Still alive, healed and scarred, this old girl was a survivor of a snapping turtle attack. There are countless stories of snapping turtles amputating the digits of people. I was raised with stories from my Ojibway grandmother who witnessed a boy losing a very large section of his heel to a snapping turtle he accidentally kicked while swimming. Though it seems unlikely that an animal that looks so slow could do so, their powerful jaws, and aggressive tendencies give good reason to steer clear when you find them. Being so vicious, has done some good things for the common snapping turtle. They cannot fully retract their heads into their shells, which other North American turtles can do. Because of this, they are left exposed, and in theory, easy to kill by predators. However, except for the rare otter, and man, Snapping turtles don't really have that many predators. I suppose the other predators learned long ago what my spear learned during the wetland course! As well, their diet supports their ability to survive in almost any water body in North America. Seeing as I named otters earlier as a predator of the snapping turtle, I'll describe what a park ranger told me when I was learning Bushcraft in Algonquin Park; Most lakes in Ontario, and North America, can support perhaps 2-3 families of otters (four to six adults, plus their young). The fish after that, will decrease in population, and due to starvation, the otters will have to move, or die. However, that same lake can support up to fifty adult snapping turtles, plus the hatchlings. Why? If it lives/lived, they'll eat it. And seeing as they don't need to eat constantly to survive, they can take long stretches between meals. Another interesting subject that comes up with snapping turtles and their survival, is their eggs. Ron Brooks, a professor of Zoology, was recorded in Norm Quinn's book "Algonquin Wildlife: Lessons in Survival", of doing research on the nesting and survival rates of snapping turtles. According to the book, unlike other species, like rabbits, which breed a great amount of young but have short lifespan, the mortality rate of adult snapping turtles is very low (disregarding human involvement that is). It is believed that wild snapping turtles can live up to 45-50 years, though this theory is hard to pin down, because after a certain length of time, the turtle's shell scales no longer grow. So measuring the age of the turtle becomes impossible after 45-odd years. Other species that live long periods of life (moose as an example), give birth to very few young. Often 2-5 in their lifetime. But the Snapping Turtle can lay up to eighty eggs in one season. Females will lay each season. The females can lay eggs for many years of their lives. So that is a lot of eggs! Odd though, is the fact that the mortality rate of infant snapping turtles is nearly 99.9% of them. Foxes, raccoons, vultures, gulls, ravens, skunks, large mouthed bass, pikes, and other snapping turtles all pose threats to the infants throughout their lifetime. This includes their time in the nest, where foxes, skunks and other critters will sniff out the eggs! And yet, the turtle's population has never seemed to naturally lower. I say naturally, because human involvement is lowering the population through; hunting, poaching, vehicle collisions with nesting mothers, and the destruction of habitat. But in nature, the snapping turtle populations never seem to lower. Nor do their numbers rise (remember, the babies don't often survive). So in a simple, dramatic way of putting it.. snapping turtles.. just.. don't die... Mother turtles will travel extensively over land, to find the perfect soil (sandy or gravel, in warm sunny places) to lay their eggs. If harassed by vehicles, people or other animals, they will abandon a nest in mid-dig, and travel a far distance to dig again. I accidentally bothered one mother enough to make her travel deep into the bush, climbing over metre thick logs, and under fallen trees, just to find a new site. I tracked and followed her at a far distance, and once she found a new nesting site, I left her to do her business. Native people have had a close relationship with snapping turtles. When the nesting season began, Ojibway youth were sent out to prod the sandy banks of rivers, lakes and swamps with sharp sticks. Once the stick was found covered in yoke, the children would dig up the nests, harvest the eggs and bring them back to the village as treats. Fishing weirs were often found with snapping turtles within them, and because of this, they frequented the diets of Eastern Woodland tribes (Ojibway, Iroquois, and Menominee). Midden mounds found along the shore of Rice Lake had snapping turtle bones within them from long ago (well over 2,000 years). It's a favoured dish served within the Anishnaube Akii (Ojibway Territory) throughout early summer. The claws are often found on necklaces, possibles bags, and medicine bundles. The body, including shell, head and neck, would be carefully sewn shut as a rattle/shaker. Other native tribes made similar rattles.The carapace (Top shell) was/is used as a bowl for soups (including turtle soup), and as a berry basket. Other uses for the carapace have included; shields used by some tribes during pre-firearm warfare (these shields can still be seen amongst some Northern Traditional pow wow dancers), and drums. Bags are also made from the carapace. The plastron (Bottom shell) was often scored with flint tools and broken into flat disks, used as pendants, pieces for traps, animal calls, and even as dinner plates. Other uses can include; Beads, goggle lenses (often seen by Malaysian cultures with sea turtle shells, which they scraped thin enough to become translucent), playing cards can be made from them. Simply scratch the numbers and suits onto the disks (Primitive Poker anyone?). The dried heads have been used as decorative pieces for "spirit sticks", and other ceremonial tools. The Iroquois and Algonquian tribes believed the world rested on the back of a snapping turtle. Due to this, they called their homeland "Turtle Island". Interestingly, if you look at a map of North America, you may just see this. Newfoundland and Alaska make up the front legs. California and Florida are the hind legs. Mexico is that thick serpentine tail. The arctic islands shape beautifully into the head, and the rest of North America is the shell. I find it absolutely beautiful how a native legend suits the geography that well.