The clock of the natural world is always ticking, with new miraculous events happening every day. During any given season, if I pay attention, I might be lucky enough to witness a few of those wonderful events — like an explosion of mushroom growth after a heavy summer rain.
On a recent September day, I stumbled upon one of those wondrous events: a baby snapping turtle, newly hatched, braving the great wide world alone.
On that particular day, a cool wind raised goosebumps on my arms as I sat on the sandy shore of Spring River Lake. I’d settled myself in a patch of sunlight, absorbing its warmth as I watched my dog, Juno, retrieve sticks from the water.
I may have been sulking. My husband and I had traveled out to the crystal clear lake to go canoeing, and the wind-tossed whitecaps had thwarted our plans. But it’s hard to remain glum on a beautiful summer day, especially when your husband yells, “There’s a baby turtle over here!”
At the edge of the small beach, where sand and gravel turned abruptly into a jumble of angular rocks, a tiny turtle floated at the surface of the water. A dark blob, it measured maybe 2 inches long. Yet even so, it’s rough shell and long spiky tail was unmistakably that of a snapping turtle.
I watched as the waves tossed the turtle up against the rocks, over and over. And while I don’t usually like to disturb nature and it’s due processes, I couldn’t stop myself from plucking the turtle from the water and cradling it in the palm of my hand.
“I’ll just set it on the sand away from the dog,” I said to Derek before walking to the other side of the beach.
In my hand, the turtle didn’t move a muscle. I worried that it was dead. But I set it on the sand anyway, just in case it was frozen from fear. In most cases, being carried from the water would mean death to a baby turtle.
As soon as its tiny clawed feet hit the sand, it started to crawl toward the water, right into the crashing waves. Exhausted or not, the hatchling was determined to enter the lake. This time, I let nature take its course, even though I knew its likelihood of surviving was slim.
When I returned home, I tracked down my handy “Maine Amphibians and Reptiles” book to learn more about snapping turtles. Edited by Malcolm L. Hunter, Aram J.K. Calhoun and Mark McCollough, the book has several authors and was published in 1999, so some of the information included about current management is dated. However, snapping turtles evolved 60-100 million years ago, so any general information about the species has been true for a long time.
The largest amphibious turtle native to Maine, the common snapping turtle looks a bit like a dinosaur. Its ridged shell and long saw-toothed tail lend it an ancient air. Its large head has a pointed beak, like a bird. And its strong, curved claws are perfect for digging and tearing at prey.
The snapping turtle section of “Maine Amphibians and Reptiles” was written by Malcolm W. Coulter, who was working at the Maine Department of Inland Fisheries and Wildlife at the time of the book’s publication. He dug up all sorts of useful information about the species. But to ensure I don’t also write a book, I’ll focus on facts about reproduction and hatchlings.
Snapping turtles spend the majority of their life in the water, but females will climb ashore in June to dig nests and lay eggs in gravel or sand. Sometimes they’ll even bury their eggs in a sawdust pile.
Digging a nest with its hind legs, a female will then lay 20-40 perfectly round, white eggs that could easily be mistaken for ping-pong balls. Then she leaves.
It takes three to four months for the baby turtles to hatch — if they make it until then. As much as 90 percent of snapping turtle nests are destroyed by skunks, racoons, coyotes and foxes according to the Connecticut Department of Environmental Protection. So the tiny turtle I found on the lakeshore could be counted as lucky.
The sex of a snapping turtle depends on the temperature of incubation. Warmer temperatures during certain stages of development result in female hatchlings. Therefore, nests exposed to sunlight tend to produce more females than nests in the shade. That also explains why eggs at the top of a nest are more likely to produce females, since they’re closer to warmth provided by the sun.
After hatching, snapping turtles dig their way skyward and out of their nest. Then they’re on their own.
With soft shells, they’re easy prey for all sorts of creatures. It’s hard for scientists to determine how many hatchlings actually survive to adulthood. All sorts of numbers have been thrown out there, some as exact as 1 in 133. It’s safe to say that the odds aren’t good.
In Maine, baby snappers emerge just in time to grab a snack and find somewhere to hunker down for the winter. As the weather cools in October, their metabolism slows to a crawl, so they burrow into the muck, beneath the water, and hibernate.
As I watched the tiny turtle swim away from shore of Spring River Lake, its little arms waving, I rooted for it to survive to adulthood. Maybe it’ll live 40 years, reaching 40 pounds and over 3 feet long — as some of our largest snappers do. As it fought against the waves, it seemed determined to make its way in the wilderness. Bon voyage, little guy.