Outdoors with Tom Venesky: Snapping turtles are modern-day dinosaurs

By Tom Venesky - [email protected]
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As a kid, I loved dinosaurs.

Triceratops was my favorite, and stegosaurus was pretty neat as well.

I was fascinated by their size, dagger-like teeth, enormous horns and the armor-plating sported by several species of dinosaurs. I marveled at dinosaurs pictures in books and even got into the science aspect of it, learning which ones were plant eaters and those that were carnivores, how they changed through different period and, ultimately, their demise when an asteroid struck the earth and choked out the sun.

But above everything else, the biggest reason why I was infatuated with dinosaurs was their appearance. They looked like gigantic monsters, and what kid wouldn’t love that?

Anyhow, my childhood fascination with dinosaurs is why, as an adult, I find snapping turtles so intriguing.

There are a lot of similarities between dinosaurs and snapping turtles.

Like dinosaurs, a snapping turtle is protected with armor — in this case a ridged carapace.

Snapping turtles are reptiles with rough, scaly skin, as were dinosaurs.

And snapping turtles have short, powerful legs just like some dinosaurs, such as the ankylosaurus.

But the biggest similarity, in my opinion, is the jaws. A snapping turtle has crushing, beak-like jaws that are smooth and sharp and come to a curved point at the tip. The jaws look identical to those found on a triceratops. Perhaps the jaws are a trait that the snapping turtle carried over from prehistoric times, considering they have existed on Earth for nearly 90 million years.

Still, there is one major difference between snapping turtles and dinosaurs. While the latter was ultimately doomed by a changing climate, the former faces a threat from man, inadvertent or not.

I witness the reality of the threat several times each spring when a female snapping turtle lays its eggs. They seek loose gravel or silt to bury their eggs, and all too often the silt-laden edges of roads provide the perfect habitat. The gravel berm is a great place for eggs to incubate, but it’s a perilous location as well.

Last week I spotted a female snapping turtle in the grass near a road. The large turtle had emerged from a pond about 50 yards away, evident by the green duckweed coating its shell. Later in the day, the snapper deposited its eggs in the sandy gravel right along the edge of a busy road and subsequently headed back to the depths of the pond. While the eggs will surely receive plenty of warm sunlight, all it will take is for one car to swerve a few inches and crush them all.

And even if the eggs hatch, the young snapping turtles will face a perilous beginning as a car tire could end their existence if they wander in the wrong direction.

That’s certainly a risk that dinosaurs never faced, but it’s one that snapping turtles have overcome considering they are rather abundant.

Furthermore, the habit of depositing eggs near a road must work because, on numerous occasions, I’ve seen snapping turtles return to the roadside location year after year each spring.

Yet roads aren’t only a hazard to eggs and young. The pavement claims the lives of adult snapping turtles as well, and often it’s the females as they travel to deposit eggs.

While I couldn’t do anything about the eggs laid along the road, it is possible to help a snapping turtle across one safely. Despite the long neck, powerful jaws and sharp claws, a snapping turtle is rather easy to move off the road. The task can be accomplished by holding the back of the shell with a hand on each side of the tail, lift the back legs off the ground and turn the turtle around, lightly dragging it off the pavement. When you get to the other side, turn the turtle back in the direction it was heading.

That’s all it takes to save such a prehistoric-looking creature from the dangers of the modern world.

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By Tom Venesky

[email protected]

Reach Tom Venesky at 570-991-6395 or on Twitter @TomVenesky

Reach Tom Venesky at 570-991-6395 or on Twitter @TomVenesky