When animal lover Kathleen Talbot rescued a baby snapping turtle down the road from her home in Hudson on Monday, she didn’t realize how special the creature truly was. When she brought the turtle home, she cleaned off its tiny dirt-caked body and was shocked to find it had two fully formed heads — and both were giving her a good stare.
“He’s a feisty little rascal,” Talbot said. “He’s already eating with both heads at just 24 hours old.”
To avoid confusion, she calls one head Frank, the other head, Stein.
“It’s the first two-headed turtle I’ve ever seen,” she said, “other than on the Addams Family.”
State wildlife biologist Derek Yorks, who specializes in reptiles, says two-headed turtles are uncommon but not unheard of. He’s read a number of stories about two-headed turtles and snakes over the years, but oftentimes, these animals don’t live long.
“Obviously it’s a major deformity, to say the least,” Yorks said. “So with that can come a whole host of complications — or not. It all depends on the luck of the draw. Under natural conditions, they rarely survive into adulthood, but there are a fair number of cases where people have found these two-headed turtles and kept them in captivity, and they’ve lived a long time.”
Talbot, who has taken care of turtles in the past, is keeping the two-headed snapping turtle in a temporary enclosure — a casserole dish in which she’s created a habitat of cold water, rocks and vegetation.
“I bought him reptile pellets, which he’s not sure if he likes yet, but he does like worms and flies and hamburger,” she said.
Since snapping turtles are omnivores, Talbot plans to feed him a wide variety of food until he’s large enough to move into her turtle aquarium. She isn’t convinced he’d make it long in the wild.
“My intentions aren’t to keep him, but to at least give him a good start,” Talbot said. “Then maybe the New England Aquarium or some place like that would want him.”
“Technically, she can keep it,” Yorks said. “If she lets it go, the odds of it surviving are pretty low.”
This isn’t the first time Talbot has rescued an animal. She ran Little Wanderers Animal Shelter at her home for 15 years, caring for a variety of domestic animals. She also used to be an active wildlife rehabilitator, taking care of injured and orphaned animals to be released back into the wild. Her patients included several turtles with damaged shells from being run over by vehicles.
On Tuesday, Talbot reapplied for the wildlife rehabilitator permit, which is issued by the state, so she could continue to take care of the two-headed turtle.
Talbot sees this unusual find as a sign that she should start rehabilitating animals again.
“Now that the shelter is closed, I have all the room and I have the time,” she said.
For the past five years, Talbot has watched the snapping turtles lay their eggs at several locations along Route 43 near her home.
They lay their eggs in May or June. With powerful hind legs, a female will dig a shallow bowl-shaped nest in a well-drained, sunny location, then lay 20-40 creamy white, ping-pong-ball-sized eggs. She’ll then cover her eggs and return to water, leaving her offspring to fend for themselves, according to the Connecticut Department of Energy and Environmental Protection.
Hatching takes about 80 to 90 days, depending on temperature and other environmental conditions. The newly hatched snappers are about an inch long, with soft shells that make them easy prey for a variety of predators, such as raccoons, skunks, fox, dogs and birds. Instinctively, they seek out water, and along the way, they often run into another danger — roads.
“I try to be there simply to help them across the road into the brook that their mother came out of to lay them,” Talbot said.
Too often, vehicles don’t see the hatchlings and run them over, she said, so she collects them in a bucket and transports them safely to their destination.
It was during one of these turtle patrols that she found the two-headed hatchling. She didn’t arrive in time to save his siblings, many of which were flattened on the pavement, but she peeked in the dirt nest, just in case there were any stragglers. Inside, she found Frank and Stein, struggling to climb out.
“It’s so unusual,” she said. “I hope that he survives.”
While deformities in amphibians, such as frogs, have been linked to environmental contamination, Yorks said there’s no way of knowing whether two-headed turtles are indicative of pollution. It’s too rare of a case to link it to environmental conditions.
“I’ve read about these situations most of my life,” Yorks said. “One thing with two-headed turtles is you need to be careful that they don’t drown. Basically, they can get stuck in funny positions or flip over and not be able to right themselves. Normally, if they flip over, they can use their head to right themselves, but if they have two heads trying to do different things, they can get stuck.”
Common snapping turtles live in wetland environments throughout Maine, though they aren’t as common in Aroostook county, Yorks said. People often see them crossing roads, especially in the springtime, during mating season.
While traveling over land, turtles are most vulnerable to predators. While many turtles retreat into their shells at the sign of danger, the common snapping turtle has a relatively small shell. They have another form of defense — a strong jaw and sharp beak.
“Thats why they’re so nasty to deal with,” said Yorks, who suggests moving snapping turtles off the road by carefully grabbing the back of its top shell, near its back legs, and sliding it off the road, in the direction it was crawling when found.
“It takes a little bit of bravery,” Yorks said. “But it can only reach its head back about halfway [across its shell].”
Because of their aggression and their size, snapping turtles don’t make particularly good pets, though they do thrive in captivity if cared for properly, Yorks said.
“I have raised many turtles,” Talbot said, “and this one amazes me. He’s so strong and healthy.”
Facts about the common snapping turtle:
— Snapping turtles are found in much of North America. They live across the eastern U.S. to the Rocky Mountain, from southern Canada to the Gulf of Mexico, and into Central America. They have also been introduced in some western states.
— As an adult, a snapping turtle’s shell measures 8-12 inches on average, and the turtles can weigh between 10 and 35 pounds.
— Its shell can vary in color, from green to brown to black, and it’s sometimes covered in moss.
— It has a long tail for a turtle, often measuring as long or longer than its shell.
— Its sharp, hooked upper jaw has a rough cutting edge that is used for tearing food.
— Almost entirely aquatic, snapping turtles can be found in a wide variety of aquatic habitats, preferably with slow-moving water and a soft muddy or sandy bottom.
— As omnivores, they feed on a variety of foods, including plants, insects, worms, fish, frogs, small turtles, snakes, birds, small mammals and carrion.
— Snapping turtles are nocturnal and spend most of the time underwater, lying on the bottom of a pond or stream, waiting to ambush prey.
— They can be aggressive during the breeding season, in the spring, when they’re found traveling across land.
— They should never be picked up by their tails because this can damage their vertebral column and tail.
— Snapping turtles that live in colder climates, such as Maine, hibernate in the winter by burrowing into mud and leaf debris in shallow water or under logs and overhanging banks.
— They generally reach maturity at 8 to 10 years and can live up to 40 years or more.
— In many areas of the United States and other parts of the world, people consume snapping turtle meat in soups and stews. States have different laws about harvesting turtles for this purpose.