The life story of a snapping turtle.

News and commentary about environmental issues.
July 23 2009 9:30 AM

"These Dirty Filthy Mud-Turtles"

From a continuing series on revolting creatures.

Turtle. Clck image to expand.
Snapping turtle

More revolting creatures: the vulture, the tick, the jellyfish, and the slug.

We may think of snapping turtles as hissing, lunging, and biting beasts, but that's because we tend to meet them on land. In water, they're more shy than hostile, swimming away from threats and retreating into the mud.

Advertisement

They're shy but not beautiful, these creatures of the mud, and I have seen them up close. A couple of summers ago, I was swimming in my upstate New York pond and saw, a few yards away on the surface of the water, a curious combination of moving body parts. There was a glossy, ridged back, then another glossy back, a scaly paw with bearlike claws, and part of a thick, thorny tail.

Breaking any previous pond freestyle record, I swam to shore.

Through binoculars I could see that the mélange of shells, claws, and tails was Shakespeare's beast with two backs—a pair of snapping turtles locked in an embrace that went on for another half-hour. When the coupling had finished and the male unfastened his grip on the female's back, the two stayed floating near each other awhile longer. Then one gave the other (I'd lost track of which was which) a little nudge on the shell with its blunt snout, and they went back to the bottom of the pond.

Two years have passed, and we haven't seen those lovers again. We haven't seen any snapping turtles at all. Yet there are people who refuse to swim in our pond because, over twilight gin and tonics, we have told this charming tale of reptile love.

After some research I realized I could have shared the water with the amorous turtles.  For one thing, those two were preoccupied, in the most basic sense of the word. They were also on their home turf: According to various trustworthy Web sites, snappers are benign in water and defensive unto aggressive on land, when provoked.

"I have never heard of anyone being attacked or injured by a snapping turtle in water, unless they were trying to catch it or restrain it," says J. Whitfield Gibbons, University of Georgia professor of ecology and co-author of Turtles of the Southeast. Gibbons did recall, vividly, being bitten on the finger by a Potomac River snapper when he reached down and grabbed the shell. At any rate, it was a laceration, not an amputation. (The old bite-the-broomstick-in-two-with-its-powerful-jaws thing is greatly exaggerated, he says. And please don't try it—the turtle can suffer a broken jaw.)

I asked Gibbons and other herpetologists whether they'd rather have a swimming hole with a snapping turtle in it or one without. The answer was definitely with. It's like having a small dinosaur in your pond, said Michigan State University herpetologist James Harding. (And who wouldn't want that?) In fact, it's like having a particularly useful little dinosaur, one that consumes dead fish and rotting vegetation and controls the frog, snail, and leech populations. Despite their frightening appearance—30 to 80 pounds of muscle and shell, carapace a foot long, and hooked jaw—many snapping turtles have a diet that's 65 percent vegetation.

These animals are not merely misunderstood by most of us—they're often demonized. The protagonist of Edmund Wilson's brilliant story "The Man Who Shot Snapping Turtles" drains his pond (after his shooting campaign has failed) and beheads the snapping turtles he believes have eaten baby ducks. Here's the title character sermonizing: "If God has created the mallard, a thing of beauty and grace, how can He allow these dirty filthy mud-turtles to prey upon His handiwork and destroy it?"

TODAY IN SLATE

Frame Game

Hard Knocks

I was hit by a teacher in an East Texas public school. It taught me nothing.

Chief Justice John Roberts Says $1,000 Can’t Buy Influence in Congress. Looks Like He’s Wrong.

After This Merger, One Company Could Control One-Third of the Planet's Beer Sales

Hidden Messages in Corporate Logos

If You’re Outraged by the NFL, Follow This Satirical Blowhard on Twitter

Sports Nut

Giving Up on Goodell

How the NFL lost the trust of its most loyal reporters.

How Can We Investigate Potential Dangers of Fracking Without Being Alarmist?

My Year as an Abortion Doula       

  News & Politics
Weigel
Sept. 16 2014 9:22 AM The Most Populist Campaign of 2014
  Business
Moneybox
Sept. 15 2014 7:27 PM Could IUDs Be the Next Great Weapon in the Battle Against Poverty?
  Life
Atlas Obscura
Sept. 16 2014 8:00 AM The Wall Street Bombing: Low-Tech Terrorism in Prohibition-era New York
  Double X
The XX Factor
Sept. 15 2014 3:31 PM My Year As an Abortion Doula
  Slate Plus
Tv Club
Sept. 15 2014 11:38 AM The Slate Doctor Who Podcast: Episode 4  A spoiler-filled discussion of "Listen."
  Arts
Brow Beat
Sept. 16 2014 9:13 AM Clive James, Terminally Ill, Has Written an Exquisitely Resigned Farewell Poem
  Technology
Future Tense
Sept. 16 2014 7:36 AM The Inspiration Drought Why our science fiction needs new dreams.
  Health & Science
Bad Astronomy
Sept. 16 2014 7:30 AM A Galaxy of Tatooines
  Sports
Sports Nut
Sept. 15 2014 9:05 PM Giving Up on Goodell How the NFL lost the trust of its most loyal reporters.