CAPE GIRARDEAU, Mo. – The Missouri Department of Conservation (MDC) says snapping turtles begin laying their eggs this month in sandy areas. Though many Missourians may be intimidated by their hard, spiny shells, large size and “snappy” demeanor, naturalists say these reptiles play an important role in nature and deserve to be left alone.
“These turtles help keep the populations of many aquatic plants and animals in check,” said Alex Holmes, a MDC naturalist. “Their nests are also preyed upon by hungry predators such as skunks, raccoons, and mink.”
Holmes said snapping turtles have earned a reputation for their strong jaws and ability to snap, but if people don’t try to handle them, they’re a beneficial wildlife species. They live in farm ponds, marshes, swamps, sloughs, rivers, and reservoirs — anywhere there is permanent water.
“Snappers prefer bodies of water with a mud bottom, abundant aquatic vegetation, and submerged logs,” Holmes said. “But now is the time females often travel over land during their egg-laying season and often are killed by cars.”
Female turtles are particular about where they lay and bury their eggs and might travel long distances to find a suitable location, Holmes said. Most female snappers select well-drained, sandy or loose soil to deposit their eggs.
“Snapping turtles are careful to lay their eggs deep in the sand,” he said. “If you find snapping turtle eggs, simply cover them back up and let them be.”
Courtship and mating can take place between April and November, but mostly in late spring and early summer. June is the usual month for egg-laying, though two clutches may be laid per season. The female digs a nest in deep sand or loose soil and deposits usually 20–30 eggs. The eggs hatch 55–125 days later, depending on environmental conditions.
Holmes said snapping turtles aren’t detrimental to fish and wildlife as generally supposed, even though they do eat some small fishes, very young ducks, and goslings. Common snappers are basically lazy and are more apt to feed on slower moving, sick, less desirable fish. By doing this, they provide a valuable clean-up service by eating diseased or weakened fish and by devouring any dead or decaying fish or other animals.
Snapping turtles can be harvested, with some people preferring to eat the meat in a stew. However, anyone harvesting a snapping turtle should ensure it’s not an alligator snapping turtle. Alligator snapping turtles live only in the few natural aquatic habitats remaining in Missouri’s Bootheel. It’s the largest species of freshwater turtle in the world. The alligator snapping turtle is rare in our state due to habitat loss and illegal harvesting. There is no open season for the alligator snapping turtle.
Learn more about snapping turtles in MDC’s online field guide at https://nature.mdc.mo.gov/discover-nature/field-guide/snapping-turtle. For information on harvesting snapping turtles go to https://huntfish.mdc.mo.gov/fishing/species/turtle/turtle-seasons-hours.
To see an alligator snapping turtle, stop by the Cape Girardeau Conservation Nature Center located in Cape County Park North.