By Annette Hinkle
It’s a familiar temptation on a hot summer day — a lovely pond filled with clear, cool water surrounded by shade trees. Just the spot for a quick dip.
Then someone happens to mention the inevitable.
“There are snapping turtles in that pond.”
And with that simple phrase, many a would-be swimmer foregoes the idea altogether as he or she conjures up visions of veritable monsters lurking in the deep below the water’s surface.
This Saturday, the South Fork Natural History Museum (SoFo) will offer “Snapping Turtles: Prehistoric Monster Hunt” a program ideal for those interested in learning more about the species. In advance of the outing, one of SoFo’s naturalists, Jim Ash, was happy to sort fact from fiction and offer up the truth about snappers.
“Snapping turtles are the biggest land locked turtles here,” explains Ash. “The record size is 70 pounds. But the biggest around here is about 35 or 40 pounds.”
One good look at a snapping turtle out of the water will explain why these creatures have developed such a fearsome reputation. With their thick, powerful beak capable of inflicting serious damage, a saw-tooth edged shell and a long spiky tale, these fresh water turtles would be well cast in a remake of “Jurassic Park.” In fact, they’ve been around for millions of years and would have been right at home alongside T-Rex.
“The snapping turtle looks the part,” concedes Ash. “It’s very prehistoric with spines on the tail and the scallop shell.”
But that’s just part of the story. Those who understand the true nature of snapping turtles wouldn’t hesitate to dive into a pond full of them.
“They’re abundant and the common turtle here,” adds Ash. “The baymen called them ‘terrups’ and used to trap them and sell them for turtle soup.”
Snapping turtles are actually quite illusive and can stay underwater for 30 or 40 minutes at a time. They only come face to face with people when they’re on dry land, and they only go on dry land when there’s a good reason to.
“They don’t come out of the water unless the pond dries out or the females come out to lay eggs,” explains Ash. “Most of the ones you come across are females and they’re looking for a dry sandy spot to lay their eggs.”
If you do come across a snapping turtle on dry land, Ash says there’s a good chance they’ll live up to their reputation.
“The snapping turtle is so named because it hisses and snaps,” notes Ash. “It only does that on land. The reason is, if you turn it over and look at the bottom shell, you’ll see that the plastron — as opposed to the carapace which is the top shell — is tiny.”
“This turtle is unable to withdrawal into its shell when threatened,” he adds. “So it hisses and snaps on land when out of it’s element.”
But what about when it’s in its element? What, exactly, would happen if a swimmer were to confront one in a pond?
“If you were to step on one in the water it would just swim away,” says Ash. “That part of it is so over blown.”
“But I do always recommend, when people see one in the road that they don’t attempt to pick it up,” he adds. “It has a long neck and can reach around and get your hand. The safest way to move a snapping turtle is to grab the tail and drag it across the road.”
Snapping turtles are often blamed for the deaths of aquatic birds. While Ash notes that fish, birds and small mammals are part of their diet, the turtles are not the killers they’re reputed to be.
“People say they kill million of ducks and pull them down,” he says. “It’s not a regular occurrence. Black crowned night herons kill way more. Fifty percent or more of the turtles’ diet is the vegetation and algae in the muck on the bottom of the pond.”
“They are an aquatic species,” he adds. “They‘ll lay motionless in the mud. If a frog or fish swims close by, the rapidity with which they can reach out and catch it is faster than the eye can follow. They’ll also eat dead fish or dead animals.”
Though they occasionally can be found in brackish water, and can even survive a swim across the bay, Ash notes that snapping turtles much prefer fresh water. He recalls one incident in recent years in which some baby turtles hatched at Sagg Main Beach. A family of beach goers were trying to be good samaritans and help the newly hatched turtles by tossing them into the surf.
“But we don’t have sea turtles that lay eggs here,” says Ash. “Some snapper had wandered out and laid her eggs on the open beach. These people were throwing these baby turtles into the surf and they kept coming back on shore.”
“I told them ‘These are fresh water turtles.’ I sent the kids to get them and put them in Sagg Pond.”
Once in that pond, those turtles are likely to be there for a while. Though they don’t live nearly as long as box turtles, which can get to be 100 years, snappers are still fairly long-lived with a life expectancy of 28 to 30 years.
For those who would like to get a good look at baby snappers up close, SoFo keeps hatchling snapping turtles until they’re six to eight inches long. They then get too large to keep and are released back into the wild.
Saturday’s outing will hopefully provide turtle lovers with a chance to see a full grown snapper up close. Ash explains that in advance of the program, Andy Sabin, president of SoFo’s board of directors, will set up a turtle trap in Crooked Pond in the Long Pond Greenbelt.
“They’re hoop traps with a funnel end,” he explains. “The top hoop is left out of the water so the turtles can come up for a breath of air. Andy will put a sardine can or fish wracks into the trap. Then he’ll go out the next morning and retrieve the traps and see what he’s got. Sometimes he gets quite a few.”
But this last weekend was a tough one weather-wise on the East End. How does Ash think the turtles fared through it all?
“In the last 20,000 years, snapping turtles have been through a lot of hurricanes,” he says.
“Snapping Turtles: Prehistoric Monster Hunt” begins at 10 a.m. on Saturday, September 3 at SoFo (377 Bridgehampton/Sag Harbor Turnpike, Bridgehampton). In addition to snapping turtles, other species could be included in the program, including the painted turtle, and perhaps Sternotherus odoratus, also known as the “stinkpot turtle.” Call 537-9735 to reserve.