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Montana Field Guides

Snapping Turtle - Chelydra serpentina

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Species of Concern

Global Rank: G5
State Rank: S3

Agency Status
USFWS:
USFS:
BLM: SENSITIVE
FWP Conservation Tier: 1


 

External Links





 
General Description
The Snapping Turtle shell is hard and very serrated ("saw-toothed") on the rear edge of the carapace; the plastron is relatively small. The tail is as long or longer than the carapace, with a crest of large, bony scales. The head is large, with a hooked upper jaw and two barbels on the chin. The limbs are strong, with webbed toes and robust claws. Skin and shell color is black to tan. Maximum carapace length is 50 centimeters, but usually is less than 36 centimeters; average weight of wild individuals is 16 kilograms. In mature males, the anal opening extends farther beyond the base of the tail than in females, and is usually beyond the rear margin of the carapace (under the rear edge in females). In adults, the carapace is relatively smooth, and the longitudinal ridges are not prominent. In juveniles, there are three longitudinal ridges on the carapace; in hatchlings the carapace is rough with conspicuous ridges. Eggs are moderately pliable, somewhat brittle, and average 28 by 27 millimeters.

Diagnostic Characteristics
The Snapping Turtle differs from other Montana turtles by the presence of a plastron (ventral shell) that is reduced to a cross-like structure, covering perhaps only half of the ventral surface; the presence of keeled scutes or scales on the carapace (dorsal shell); and the presence of a tail at least as long as the carapace. The shell is hard, not soft and leathery, nor is it flattened or pancake-like, as is the case with the Spiny Softshell.

Species Range
Montana Range

Click the legend blocks above to view individual ranges.

Western Hemisphere Range

 


Summary of Observations Submitted for Montana
Number of Observations: 129

(Click on the following maps and charts to see full sized version) Map Help and Descriptions
Relative Density

Recency

 

(Records associated with a range of dates are excluded from time charts)



Migration
No specific information for Montana is available.

Research from other locations indicates that the Snapping Turtle may migrate up to several miles between the permanent water of usual residence and nesting areas. Some may travel up to a few kilometers between summer range and winter hibernation sites; others hibernate within summer range (Brown and Brooks 1994). In Ontario, the maximum distance traveled from the nesting site was 370 to 2020 meters (mean 1053 meters); movements were greatest from spring to mid-July (Pettit et al. 1995).

Habitat
Habitat use by Snapping Turtles in Montana is probably similar to elsewhere in the range, but studies are lacking and there is little qualitative information available. They have been captured or observed in backwaters along major rivers, at smaller reservoirs, and in smaller streams and creeks with permanent flowing water and sandy or muddy bottoms (Reichel 1995, Hendricks and Reichel 1996). Nesting habitat and nest sites have not been described.

Elsewhere, Snapping Turtles occur in all types of shallow freshwater habitats, such as streams, rivers, reservoirs, and ponds, especially those with a soft mud bottom and abundant aquatic vegetation or submerged brush and logs (Hammerson 1999), and in brackish water in some areas. Although found most often in shallower water, they have been reported on the bottom of lakes in water up to 10 meters deep. Temporary ponds may also be occupied. Hatchlings and juveniles tend to occupy shallower sites than mature individuals in the same water bodies. They are mostly bottom dwellers, where they spend much of their time. Although highly aquatic, they may make long movements overland if their pond or marsh dries (Baxter and Stone 1985, Ernest et al. 1994, Hammerson 1999). They hibernate singly or in groups in streams, lakes, ponds, or marshes; in bottom mud, in or under submerged logs or debris, under an overhanging bank, or in Muskrat tunnels; often in shallow water; sometimes in anoxic sites (Brown and Brooks 1994). Sometimes they bask out of water, especially younger individuals and in the northern extremes of the global range.

Nests are built in soft sand, loam, vegetation debris, or even sawdust piles, most often in open areas and often a hundred meters or more from water (Congdon et al. 1987, Ernst et al. 1994, Hammerson 1999); they also nest in Beaver and Muskrat lodges.

Ecological Systems Associated with this Species
  • Details on Creation and Suggested Uses and Limitations
    How Associations Were Made
    We associated the use and habitat quality (high, medium, or low) of each of the 82 ecological systems mapped in Montana for vertebrate animal species that regularly breed, overwinter, or migrate through the state by:
    1. Using personal observations and reviewing literature that summarize the breeding, overwintering, or migratory habitat requirements of each species (Dobkin 1992, Hart et al. 1998, Hutto and Young 1999, Maxell 2000, Foresman 2001, Adams 2003, and Werner et al. 2004);
    2. Evaluating structural characteristics and distribution of each ecological system relative to the species’ range and habitat requirements;
    3. Examining the observation records for each species in the state-wide point database associated with each ecological system;
    4. Calculating the percentage of observations associated with each ecological system relative to the percent of Montana covered by each ecological system to get a measure of “observations versus availability of habitat”.
    Species that breed in Montana were only evaluated for breeding habitat use, species that only overwinter in Montana were only evaluated for overwintering habitat use, and species that only migrate through Montana were only evaluated for migratory habitat use.  In general, species were associated as using an ecological system if structural characteristics of used habitat documented in the literature were present in the ecological system or large numbers of point observations were associated with the ecological system.  However, species were not associated with an ecological system if there was no support in the literature for use of structural characteristics in an ecological system, even if point observations were associated with that system.  High, medium, and low habitat quality was assigned based on the degree to which the structural characteristics of an ecological system matched the preferred structural habitat characteristics for each species in the literature.  The percentage of observations associated with each ecological system relative to the percent of Montana covered by each ecological system was also used to guide assignments of habitat quality.  If you have any questions or comments on species associations with ecological systems, please contact Bryce Maxell at bmaxell@mt.gov or (406) 444-3655.

    Suggested Uses and Limitations
    Species associations with ecological systems should be used to generate potential lists of species that may occupy broader landscapes for the purposes of landscape-level planning.  These potential lists of species should not be used in place of documented occurrences of species (this information can be requested at: http://mtnhp.org/requests/default.asp) or systematic surveys for species and evaluations of habitat at a local site level by trained biologists.  Users of this information should be aware that the land cover data used to generate species associations is based on imagery from the late 1990s and early 2000s and was only intended to be used at broader landscape scales.  Land cover mapping accuracy is particularly problematic when the systems occur as small patches or where the land cover types have been altered over the past decade.  Thus, particular caution should be used when using the associations in assessments of smaller areas (e.g., evaluations of public land survey sections).  Finally, although a species may be associated with a particular ecological system within its known geographic range, portions of that ecological system may occur outside of the species’ known geographic range.

    Literature Cited
    • Adams, R.A.  2003.  Bats of the Rocky Mountain West; natural history, ecology, and conservation.  Boulder, CO: University Press of Colorado.  289 p.
    • Dobkin, D. S.  1992.  Neotropical migrant land birds in the Northern Rockies and Great Plains. USDA Forest Service, Northern Region. Publication No. R1-93-34.  Missoula, MT.
    • Foresman, K.R.  2001.  The wild mammals of Montana.  Special Publication No. 12.  Lawrence, KS: The American Society of Mammalogists.  278 p.
    • Hart, M.M., W.A. Williams, P.C. Thornton, K.P. McLaughlin, C.M. Tobalske, B.A. Maxell, D.P. Hendricks, C.R. Peterson, and R.L. Redmond. 1998.  Montana atlas of terrestrial vertebrates.  Montana Cooperative Wildlife Research Unit, University of Montana, Missoula, MT.  1302 p.
    • Hutto, R.L. and J.S. Young.  1999.  Habitat relationships of landbirds in the Northern Region, USDA Forest Service, Rocky Mountain Research Station RMRS-GTR-32.  72 p.
    • Maxell, B.A.  2000.  Management of Montana’s amphibians: a review of factors that may present a risk to population viability and accounts on the identification, distribution, taxonomy, habitat use, natural history, and the status and conservation of individual species.  Report to U.S. Forest Service Region 1.  Missoula, MT: Wildlife Biology Program, University of Montana.  161 p.
    • Werner, J.K., B.A. Maxell, P. Hendricks, and D. Flath.  2004.  Amphibians and reptiles of Montana.  Missoula, MT: Mountain Press Publishing Company. 262 p.

Food Habits
Snapping Turtle diets have not been studied in Montana, but they are known to eat about anything that can be captured while foraging in the water. They eat many kinds of vertebrates (fish, amphibians, reptiles, aquatic birds, small mammals), invertebrates (insects, spiders, crustaceans, mollusks, leeches, sponges), algae and various aquatic vascular species (Ernst et al. 1994). Carrion is also consumed. Young Snapping Turtles actively forage for food, but adults often lie in ambush to seize their prey. This species is known to eat nine orders of insects (ants, beetles, and moths the most abundant), and spiders, scorpions, ticks, and mites have been reported in the diet (Hammerson 1999). Adults sometimes eat hatchling lizards.

Ecology
Snapping Turtles are most active at night in the southern parts of the range, but this is not so at northern locations, where activity is more pronounced in the morning (Ernest et al. 1994). They may be active year round in the southern United States, but cold weather there will drive them into dormancy. Most Snapping Turtles in more northern populations do not emerge until April, and enter hibernation by late October. In Colorado, Snapping Turtles emerge from hibernation in March and remain active through October (Hammerson 1999); there they are active day or night. The period of activity in Montana is poorly documented, with records mostly from early July through September (Reichel 1995, Hendricks and Reichel 1996); active individuals have been seen during mid-day in small streams.

In Ontario, males occupied relatively stable, overlapping home ranges; summer ranges were 0.4 to 2.3 hectares (Galbraith et al. 1987). Also in Ontario, July to August foraging home ranges in three sites during one year were 2.3 to 18.1 hectares (means fell between 5 and 9 hectares); home range length was about 550 to 1990 meters; home range size did not vary with habitat productivity (Brown et al. 1994). In another Ontario study, home range size over a year was 1.0 to 28.4 hectares, averaging about 9 hectares for females and about 2 to 3 hectares for males (Pettit et al. 1995).

Snapping Turtles frequently incur high rates of nest predation (30 to 100% in Michigan) by various predators, especially skunks, Raccoon, foxes, bears, crows, and snakes (Congdon et al. 1987, Ernst et al. 1994, Hammerson 1999). Coyotes, Northern River Otters, bears, and often humans prey on adults; herons and bitterns, large hawks, eagles, various predatory fish, and American Bullfrogs prey on hatchlings and juveniles. Predators in Montana, other than humans have not been reported. See Iverson (1991) for a compilation of survivorship data (egg survival low, not more than 0.22; adult survival generally high, over 0.90). A population in Ontario, Canada, was characterized as stable, with adult female annual survivorship greater than 0.95; later, a great increase in adult mortality occurred, apparently due primarily to Northern River Otter predation on hibernating Snapping Turtles; there was no compensatory density-dependent response in reproduction and recruitment (Brooks et al. 1991). In Michigan, actual annual survivorship of juveniles was over 0.65 by age 2 and averaged 0.77 between ages 2 and 12 years; annual survivorship of adult females ranged from 0.88 to 0.97; population stability was most sensitive to changes in adult or juvenile survival and less sensitive to changes in age at sexual maturity, nest survival, or fecundity (Congdon et al. 1994).

In eastern Ontario 42 of 257 clutches emerged in fall. Of those overwintering, one survived. The species may be limited in range in the north by overwintering mortality (Obbard and Brooks 1981). Densities in marshes in South Dakota reached one per 2 acres. Predators destroyed 59% of nests. Emergence in undisturbed nests was less than 20% (Hammer 1969).

Reproductive Characteristics
The youngest mature female known from Michigan was 12 years. In Ontario the average age of first nesting ranged from 17 to 19 years. Virtually no reproductive data exists specific to Montana; however, Montana populations likely exhibit traits similar to those elsewhere. Warming temperatures trigger nesting behavior in females. Obbard and Brooks (1987) developed a model to predict the onset of nesting activity from temperature data in Ontario. Females may travel several kilometers to locate a suitable nest site. Obbard and Brooks (1980) reported a round trip distance of 16 km to a nest site and back (Ernst et al. 1994). Nests are usually built in open areas a hundred meters or more from water; excavated in soft sand, loam, vegetation debris, sawdust piles, and Beaver and Muskrat lodges. Females generally dig nests from 7 to 18 cm (Congdon et al. 1987, Ernst et al. 1994, Hammerson 1999). In northern regions, eggs are generally deposited in late May to early June. Recorded clutch sizes range from 6 to 104, but typically 20 to 40 eggs are laid. Clutch size tends to increase from southerly to northerly latitudes. Eggs incubate for 55 to 125 days (usually 75 to 95) before hatching, with incubation period increasing with latitude. The sex of each hatchling is determined by each egg’s temperature during a critical developmental period (temperature dependent sex determination). Relatively cooler temperatures produce females and warmer temperatures produce males. The sex ratio of hatchlings is commonly 1:1 (Ernst et al. 1994). Nest site selection is critical for survival of hatchlings. Eggs burried in moist substrate generally support better embryonic development and larger hatchlings, than in drier environments (Morris et al. 1983). The incubation environment of eggs can later effect growth and viability of young Snapping Turtles (McKnight and Gutzke (1993). Bobyn and Brooks (1994) suggest incubation temperature and moisture limit the northern distribution of the Snapping Turtle.

Management
Montana populations of Snapping Turtle are poorly understood, making management of them more difficult. It is likely that dams and large reservoirs on rivers (e.g. Fort Peck Dam and Reservoir) are detrimental to population continuity to some degree, judging by the apparent lack of viable populations on the Missouri River in Montana (Maxell et al. 2003), although this species can travel overland and may be able to bypass some dams. Impacts of other habitat disturbances are not clear, but this species occupies man-made water bodies throughout its range that provide necessary resources and habitat characteristics. Studies of nesting success, population structure, dispersal, and population size need to be conducted throughout the range of the Snapping Turtle in Montana. Routine surveys for Snapping Turtles in appropriate habitats could be made a standard part of the field duties of agency fishery biologists. Records should be maintained of the incidental "take" by anglers, who should be encouraged to report any captured individuals; killed animals should be examined by agency fishery or wildlife biologists if possible so that data on sex, size, and food habits can be gathered and a base of information developed on the biology of this species in Montana. It is possible that even moderate harvest of adults by anglers in most localities will result in population declines, similar to Colorado (Hammerson 1999), because the life history of this species indicates recruitment of juveniles into breeding populations is low, and population densities in western states is probably low. Identified nesting sites should be monitored and protected from disturbance by humans.

References
  • Literature Cited AboveLegend:   View WorldCat Record   View Online Publication
    • Baxter, G. T. and M. D. Stone. 1985. Amphibians and reptiles of Wyoming. Second edition. Wyoming Game and Fish Department. Cheyenne, WY. 137 p.
    • Bobyn, M.L. and R.J. Brooks. 1994. Incubation conditions as potential factors limiting the northern distribution of snapping turtles, Chelydra serpentina. Canadian Journal of Zoology 72(1): 28-37.
    • Brooks, R. J., G. P. Brown, and D. A. Galbraith. 1991. Effects of a sudden increase in natural mortality of adults on a population of the common snapping turtle (Chelydra serpentina). Canadian Journal of Zoology 69: 1314-1320.
    • Brown, G. P. and R. J. Brooks. 1994. Characteristics of and fidelity to hibernacula in a northern population of snapping turtles, Chelydra serpentina. Copeia 1: 222-226.
    • Brown, G.P., C.A. Bishop, and R.J. Brooks. 1994. Growth rate, reproductive output, and temperature selection of snapping turtles in habitats of different productivities. Journal of Herpetology 28(4): 405-410.
    • Congdon, J .D., A. E. Dunham and R. C. Van Loben Sels. 1994. Demographics of common snapping turtles (Chelydra serpentina): implications for conservation and management of long-lived organisms. American Zoologist 34: 397-408.
    • Congdon, J. D., G. L. Breitenbach, R. C. Van Loben Sels, and D. W. Tinkle. 1987. Reproduction and nesting ecology of snapping turtles (Chelydra serpentina) in southeastern Michigan (USA). Herpetologica 43(1): 39-54.
    • Ernst, C. H., R. W. Barbour, and J. E. Lovich. 1994. Turtles of the United States and Canada. Smithsonian Institution Press. Washington, D.C. 578 p.
    • Galbraith, D. A., M. W. Chandler, and R. J. Brooks. 1987. The fine structure of home ranges of male Chelydra serpentina: are snapping turtles territorial? Canadian Journal of Zoology 65(11): 2623-2629.
    • Hammer, D. A. 1969. Parameters of a marsh snapping turtle population, Lacreek Refuge, South Dakota. Journal of Wildlife Management 33(4):995-1005.
    • Hammerson, G. A. 1999. Amphibians and reptiles in Colorado. University Press of Colorado & Colorado Division of Wildlife. Denver, CO. 484 p.
    • Hendricks, P. and J. D. Reichel. 1996. Preliminary amphibian and reptile survey of the Ashland District, Custer National Forest: 1995. Montana Natural Heritage Program, Helena, MT. 79 p.
    • Iverson, J.B. 1991. Patterns of survivorship in turtles (order Testudines). Canadian Journal of Zoology 69: 385-391.
    • Maxell, B. A., J. K. Werner, P. Hendricks and D. L. Flath. 2003. Herpetology in Montana: a history, status summary, checklists, dichotomous keys, accounts for native, potentially native, and exotic species, and indexed bibliography. Society for Northwestern Vertebrate Biology, Northwest Fauna Number 5. Olympia, WA. 135 p.
    • McKnight, C.M. and W.H.N. Gutzke. 1993. Effects of the embryonic environment and of hatchling housing conditions on growth of young snapping turtles (Chelydra serpentina). Copeia (2): 475-482.
    • Morris, K.A., G.C. Packard, T.J. Boardman, G.L. Paukstis, and M.J. Packard. 1983. Effect of the hydric environment on growth of embryonic snapping turtles (Chelydra serpentina). Herpetologica 39: 272-285.
    • Obbard, M.E. and R.J. Brooks. 1980. Nesting migrations of the snapping turtle (Chelydra serpentina). Herpetologica 36: 158-162.
    • Obbard, M.E. and R.J. Brooks. 1981. Fate of overwintered clutches of the common snapping turtle (Chelydra serpentina) in Algonquin Park, Ontario, Canada. Canadian Field Naturalist 95:350-352.
    • Obbard, M.E. and R.J. Brooks. 1987. Prediction of the onset of the annual nesting season of the common snapping turtle, Chelydra serpentina. Herpetologica 43: 324-328.
    • Pettit, K. E., C. A. Bishop, and R. J. Brooks. 1995. Home range and movements of the common snapping turtle, Chelydra serpentina serpentina, in a coastal wetland of Hamilton Harbour, Lake Ontario, Canada. Canadian Field Naturalist 109(2): 192-200.
    • Reichel, J. D. 1995. Preliminary amphibian and reptile survey of the Sioux District of the Custer National Forest: 1994. Montana Natural Heritage Program, Helena, MT. 75 p.
  • Additional ReferencesLegend:   View WorldCat Record   View Online Publication
    Do you know of a citation we're missing?
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    • Bonin, J., J.L. DesGranges, C.A. Bishop, J. Rogrigue, A. Gendron, J.E. Elliott. 1995. Comparative study of contaminants in the mudpuppy (Amphibia) and the common snapping turtle (Reptilia), St. Lawrence River, Canada. Archives of Environmental Contamination and Toxicology 28(2): 184-194.
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    • Brooks, R. J., D. A Galbraith, E. G. Nancekivell, and C. A. Bishop. 1988. Developing management guidelines for snapping turtles. In: R.C. Szaro, K.E. Severson, and D.R. Patton, technical coordinators. pp. 174-179. Management of amphibians, reptiles, and small mammals in North America. General Technical Report RM-166. U.S. Forest Service, Rocky Mountain Forest and Range Experiment Station, Fort Collins, Colorado.
    • Brooks, R.J., D.A. Galbraith, and J.A. Layfield. 1990. Occurrence of Placobdella parasitica (Hirudinea) on snapping turtles, Chelydra serpentina, in southeastern Ontario. Journal of Parasitology 76(2): 190-195.
    • Brooks, R.J., D.A. Galbraith, and m.L. Bobyn. 1989. Intraspecific variation in measures of life history in the common snapping turtle, Chelydra serpentina. In Proceedings of the First World Congfess of Herpetology. University of Kent, Canterbury, U.K., 11-19 September 1989. The Durrell Institute. Canterbury, Kent, U.K. p. 42.
    • Brooks, R.J., D.A. Galbraith, E.G. Nancekivell and C.A. Bishop. 1988. Developing management guidelines for snapping turtles. Pages 174-179 in R.C. Szaro, K.E. Severson, and D.R. Patton, technical coordinators. Management of amphibians, reptiles, and small mammals in North America. General Technical Report RM-166. U.S. Forest Service, Rocky Mountain Forest and Range Experiment Station, Fort Collins, Colorado.
    • Brooks, R.J., G.P. Brown and D.A. Galbraith. 1991. Effects of a sudden increase in natural mortality of adults on a population of the common snapping turtle (Chelydra serpentina). Canadian Journal of Zoology 69: 1314-1320.
    • Brooks, R.J., M.L. Bobyn, D.A. Galbraith, J.A. Layfield, and E.G. Nancekivell. 1991. Maternal and environmental influences on growth and survival of embryonic and hatchling snapping turtles (Chelydra serpentina). Canadian Journal of Zoology 69: 2667-2676.
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    • Brown, G.P., R.J. Brooks, and J.A. Layfield. 1990. Radiotelemetry of body temperatures of free-ranging snapping turtles (Chelydra serpentina) during summer. Canadian Journal of Zoology 68(8): 1689-1663.
    • Brown, G.P., R.J. Brooks, E. Siddall, and S.S. Desser. 1994. Parasites and reproductive output in the snapping turtle, Chelydra serpentina. Copeia 1994(1): 228-231.
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