Sometimes feared but with an endearing side – Sweet Tooth and Swayback

Today, I’d like to entertain you with a tale of two wild creatures that I’ve come to know a bit. I always enjoy learning about animals, even more so when I get to know something about their lives first-hand. Before getting to a description of Sweet Tooth and Swayback (two snapping turtles), I’ll share some interesting life facts about this reptilian species.

While box turtles often garner remarks of “how sweet,” “how cute,” and “let’s help it cross the road,” the appearance of a snapping turtle (Chelydra serpentina) can arouse fear and dislike. Many people don’t consider them “beautiful,” and they have a reputation for being dangerous because they can cause injuries.

That is such a shame because this species doesn’t always live up to its “combative disposition when out of the water with its powerful beak-like jaws, and highly mobile head and neck” (according to Wikipedia). It’s true that they don’t want to be picked up and will react very differently from the docile box turtle, who generally pulls in its head and legs and just waits for you to leave it alone.

Unlike the box turtle, the snapper cannot withdraw its head and limbs into its shell, so its main defense is to use powerful jaws to snap and bite when feeling threatened. The North Carolina Wildlife Resources Commission (NCWRC) notes that: “they are normally inoffensive underwater and pose little if any danger to swimmers or waders.”

Snapping turtles spend most of their time in the water and tend not to bask like other turtles. Instead, they swim near the surface and enjoy the sun’s rays from there.

They mate in the spring; this pair was engaged in a fairly sedate encounter at an urban park.

The NCWRC notes that it’s not uncommon for the pair to snap “savagely” at one another during mating (another instance of negative language to characterize them; they could have said “vigorously”!). This pair opened their jaws to one another but were not biting.

Females can conserve sperm for several seasons so that there is some on hand when needed. So this female may have wanted to use that as she pushed the male away.

This pair of turtles, whom I saw at an Orange County pond, did seem to be having a tussle, but they also might have been contesting territory or engaging in some other behavior.

The females come out of the water to lay their eggs (about 25); you may only see their tracks in the mud and never know where they buried the clutch. The eggs have a great chance of ending up as food for other animals, such as skunks, minks, raccoons, foxes, crows, and eastern kingsnakes.

Newborn and juvenile snappers often fall prey to large fish, mammals, birds (e.g., bitterns, hawks, owls), American bullfrogs, and alligators. This great blue heron (Ardea herodias) had a small turtle for a snack and spent quite a long time trying to crush it before swallowing it. (This was not a snapper but shows how the birds eat young turtles.)

Perhaps the high newborn mortality rate accounts for the fact that a female may lay a second clutch as well (laying 11-83 eggs in total in a breeding season). An interesting fact about the hatching snappers is that the little ones make a noise before they dig themselves out of the earth. To us, these sounds mimic clicks, creaks or what sounds like someone rubbing their finger over a fine-toothed comb.

The snapping turtles’ diet comprises quite a lot of vegetation, carrion and small animals. The latter are swallowed whole or bitten into pieces — young ducklings in a pond with snappers need to stay alert to avoid being caught. The snappers who survive to adulthood may reach a considerable age if they live in an undisturbed area, e.g., up to some 40 years.

And now we finally get back to Sweet Tooth and Swayback in particular. I’ve had the good fortune to become familiar with this pair at a local pond alongside a public road where I’ve photographed wildlife for many years. It has been designated as a “hot spot” for local and other birders on eBird. As my friend Lucretia has said: “birders and nature lovers have always enjoyed the beauty of the pond and surrounding meadows and fields and the wildlife that lives there. It is a special place.” Unfortunately, it’s now uncertain what will be happening to Sweet Tooth’s and Swayback’s longtime home.

I had seen these turtles swimming around in the pond frequently and admired their size. I’m guessing they might be a few decades old.

Last fall when a persimmon tree at the edge of the pond began dropping its ripe fruit, I was surprised to see one of the turtles up on the surrounding lawn on a rainy day— s/he saw me and quickly trundled off to the water’s edge.

On subsequent visits, I approached carefully and not too closely. By moving only a few steps to get in position for some photos and then standing still (although I did talk to the turtle, I admit), the animal decided to stay put. The temptation to eat some of the ripe persimmons was just too great and helped him/her overcome any fears.

I was very surprised as I had no idea that snapping turtles are fond of this fruit. On subsequent visits to the pond, however, I learned that it must be a real delicacy for them. This turtle seemed to recognize me after a few visits and didn’t hurry away. When Lucretia visited, Sweet Tooth (a name we decided to use for him/her) also stayed put.

Sweet Tooth is a bit of a messy eater, but then s/he doesn’t have teeth or any way to get the dripping persimmon flesh off her/his chin.

One day, I was surprised to see that Sweet Tooth had been joined by a companion, whom I called Swayback. I don’t know if this turtle had been injured at some point to cause the dent in its carapace.

Swayback didn’t seem quite as enamored with the persimmons as Sweet Tooth but did seem to enjoy eating some fruit from time to time.

Recently, the property on which the pond is located was sold. I’ve been told by people who pass by daily that the pond may be dredged and deepened so that it can be used for irrigation. Much of the surrounding vegetation, which made it a delightful spot with many hiding and perching places for migrating and resident birds was bulldozed.

I and others are worried about what could happen to the pond’s inhabitants. We hope that Sweet Tooth, Swayback and any other wildlife who call the pond home can be rescued, rehabbed if necessary, and eventually returned to their longtime home. Keep your fingers crossed along with me that we might enjoy seeing this pair of snappers relishing persimmon treats in the future!

One last note: if you want to rescue a snapper from a busy road, only pick it up at the back of its carapace above the hind legs. If you have your hands any further forward, the turtle can use its long and flexible neck to reach you for a bite. You can also move it with a square shovel (be prepared for a heavy load) or by having it on a tarp or blanket to carry it along.

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