I was walking to my truck, sucking soda through a straw with my camera slung over my shoulder Memorial Day evening in Boothbay Harbor. I saw a crowd gathered at the far end of the parking lot. They were all staring at a brown lump of dirt on the ground near the curb. Being an intrepid, fearless visual journalist, I moseyed over to investigate.
The clod of dirt turned out to be a snapping turtle the size of a dinner plate. She was just finishing up. A member of the crowd told me he’d just counted 48 eggs. When I got there she’d just begun to cover them over with her hind legs. Folks were fascinated. Tortoisetrust .org says:
Like most reptiles, snapping turtles lay eggs. They have temperature dependent sex determination, which means that the sex of the turtle depends on the temperature at which the egg was incubated. This is a primitive feature retained from before sex chromosomes and heritable sex evolved.
A woman in the crowd said she called the police and they said they’d come and put sand bags around the spot to protect the eggs. According to what I read at Tortoise Trust, snappers don’t usually nest till mid June. But, I suppose the warm, early spring has things sped up.
The female will dig a nest chamber first with her front legs, then with her hind legs, holding on to a ridge with her front legs. After about 1.5 hours the nest chamber will be completed, and the female will lay from 22 to 62 one inch (2.54 cm) eggs. After laying the eggs the female will fill the nest hole again with sand, press it down, camouflage the nest somewhat, and leave. Up to 90% of the nests will be destroyed by predators such as raccoons, skunks, foxes, and mink, often already during the first night… Because the survival of eggs and juveniles is so low, that only a few in a thousand make it, adults have to lay many eggs over their lifetime to successfully reproduce.
If all goes well, if the skunks don’t eat the eggs and cars don’t crush them, they should hatch by late August or September. I hope there’s still water in the drainage ditch then, and the little critters find their way through the culverts to the pond on the other side of the nearby intersection.
As for why they’re called snapping turtles…
Snapping turtles are not as aggressive as commonly believed. They will defend themselves if cornered and cut off from the water by striking out with their head, which can reach almost all the way back along the shell. In the water snapping turtles will always leave instead of attack. Snappers do not attack people in the water… Because of their position in the food chain snapping turtles are not afraid, but they are also not aggressive… Only if you violate a very tight zone around a snapping turtles head with a small object (something it judges it could get its jaws around) while the turtle is annoyed it will sometimes strike, bite, and sometimes hold on… Many individuals are very curious and will approach swimmers or boats very closely. They examine things by touching them with their nose, so a very curious snapper might bump a swimmer carefully. Their curiosity for boats often seems to cause injuries by the propellers, since especially turtles in lakes with high boat traffic frequently have scarred backs. There is absolutely no truth to he rumor that snapping turtles will drag swimmers under.
I took some pictures (obviously) before I left. As I stood there sipping the last bit of soda off the bottom of the paper cup, I silently wished the turtle and all her children “good luck.”