What Is That… an Alligator or a Snapping Turtle?

Waddellsby Carolyn and Bruce Waddell

This is our first column in The Millstone about better understanding and enjoying animals in our community.  We all know about the deer, the loons and the deer flies, for example, but some people may be interested in learning more about them, or knowing about less frequently-observed, but delightful, beasties.

Before we  go any further though, let us introduce ourselves.  We are Carolyn and Bruce Waddell, both retired from the federal public service.  In preparation for retirement, we bought a cottage on White Lake where we now live eight months of the year.  We have a canoe and kayaks and spend long hours on the lake, enjoying nature and photographing the wildlife.  Often, we are surprised to look at the resulting pictures on our desktop and realize we do not know exactly what that animal is … is it a crow or a raven, a toad or a frog, a turtle or an alligator?  This has led to long, interesting hours of research to identify what we have captured … on camera.

Stemming from this, we have published privately two editions of an ever-expanding  book cataloguing the wildlife at White Lake.  Our friends have kindly praised our book and encouraged us to make available to the public some of what we have learned, and of course, some photographs.  (Our book is not for sale.)

Back to the question about the turtle or the alligator.  One May morning as Carolyn stood idly gazing at the lake from the deck with her first coffee of the day in hand, a beastie floated by as lazily as she gazed.  Alert!  Alert!  What was that animal?  … an alligator?  … a monster? … a mosasaur?  All she could see was three large humps in a line.  We realized it couldn’t be an alligator.  Could it?   Bruce grabbed his camera and took some shots.  On closer examination of these we settled on snapping turtle.  We have since heard many tales of the giant snapping turtle of Three Mile Bay.

snap1

According to the Ministry of Natural Resources (MNR), snapping turtles may live up to 100 years of age, with a carapace (upper shell) reaching an average length of 36 centimetres.  Ontario Nature reports the maximum length as 47 centimetres.  MNR tells us the snapping turtle takes up to 20 years to reach maturity.  By extension, the many snapping turtles we saw along the roadside laying their eggs in May 2015 were all at least 20 years old.

Snap2

Hundreds, if not 1000s, of eggs must have been laid last spring, and that is important because typically only seven in 10,000 eggs survive to adulthood.  Raccoons, skunks, fox and other predators relish a meal of snapping turtle eggs.

Snap3 Turtle eggs

If you encounter a snapping turtle on land, leave it alone.  It will not attack, but it will bite if provoked.  In the water, the snapping turtle usually goes the other way, but it is large and slow-moving even in water and should be treated with the respect it has earned in its old age and by virtue of its size.