WILDER SIDE OF OAKLAND COUNTY
Monsters of deep swamps they are not, but the common snapping turtle, Chelydra serpentine, is the largest turtle species found in Oakland County (or anywhere else in Michigan). During the final days of May and into the month of June, these algae-coated giants of the turtle world emerge from wetlands and set off on terrestrial treks wrought with danger. They are often seen lumbering along on suburban lawns near wetlands or crossing highways. It’s nesting season for the snappers and their powerful sharp jaws are a reminder to give them a wide-berth when on dry land.
Although snappers are well-armored with a dinosaur-like upper shell, they are no match for automobiles. As a result, hundreds die on local roads during their hazardous road-crossings. When and if the snapper finds a well-drained sunny location, often along the berm of rural road, their mission begins. Using powerful hind legs, a female snapping turtle scrapes out a shallow, bowl-shaped nest and lays 20 – 50 ping-pong sized eggs before lumbering back to the water. The egg-laying process often takes over an hour. During this time, the snapping turtle will aggressively defend herself if a human, dog or wild predator gets too close.
Once the eggs are deposited, she covers the nest with soil and never returns to see her hatchlings. Most of the hatchlings do not survive. Raccoons are masters of discovery and know the scent and sight of a hidden snapper turtle nest. For these masked-bandits of the night, it’s a protein rich and easy meal. A disturbed nesting site quickly attracts crows, skunks and opossums: three predators known to consume whatever they can find. Hatching takes about 80 days, depending on environmental conditions and soil temperature. The survivors scramble for the water, risking a gauntlet of other predators including great blue herons, northern water snakes and adult snapping turtles.
Snapping turtles are found throughout our Oakland County landscape. They have a strong preference for shallow, vegetation-rich waters, such as those found at Addison Oaks, Highland Oaks, Independence Oaks and Rose Oaks county parks. They are skilled ambush-predators and readily take ducklings and goslings, small muskrats, frogs, crayfish, turtles, fish and snakes. Carrion and aquatic vegetation are also on their menu. Except for breeding, they rarely leave the water and tend to bask just under the water’s surface with only their head exposed. If habitat conditions are favorable, snapping turtles can reach 50 pounds in size and survive for decades on the wilder side of Oakland County.
Jonathan Schechter is the Nature Education Writer for Oakland County Government and blogs weekly about nature’s way, trails, and wildlife on the Wilder Side of Oakland County.