Status: Special concern
The snapping turtle (Chelydra serpentina) is Ontario’s most prehistoric-looking turtle species. Its long tail has a series of triangular spikes along the top that are reminiscent of those of a stegosaurus.
The carapace (upper shell) is tan or olive to black in colour, has a coarsely serrated anterior (front) edge and three longitudinal ridges, and is often covered with algae. The plastron (lower shell) is very small. The maximum length of the carapace in this species is 47 centimetres. The snapping turtle is the largest freshwater turtle in Canada.
Small snapping turtles may be mistaken for eastern musk turtles. The plastron of that species is also small, but musk turtles have high-domed shells and a pair of light lines along each side of the head, and lack the snapper’s characteristic tail spikes and serrated rear shell.
Musk turtles reach a maximum size of only 13 centimetres. Snapping turtle nests contain up to 50 round eggs, whereas other Ontario turtle species lay oval-shaped eggs that generally number between three and 15.
The snapping turtle occurs in almost any freshwater habitat, though it is most often found in slow-moving water with a soft mud or sand bottom and abundant vegetation. This species may inhabit surprisingly small wetlands, ponds and ditches. It hibernates in the mud or silt on the bottom of lakes and rivers, usually not too far from the shore.
View an interactive map of the known ranges of snapping turtles in Ontario.
In Ontario, females do not begin to breed until they are 17 to 19 years old. They dig a nest in late May or June in an open area, usually one with loose, sandy soil. The nest site is often the side of a road, an embankment or a shoreline, but the females will use almost any area they can excavate. A single clutch usually consists of between 40 and 50 eggs, which hatch in the fall. Hatchlings are two to three centimetres in length. The incubation temperature of the eggs determines the gender of the hatchlings.
Snapping turtles only occasionally emerge from the water to bask. Despite their highly aquatic nature, they do not swim particularly well and are often observed simply walking on the bottom. They are omnivorous and feed on various aquatic plants and invertebrates, as well as fish, frogs, snakes, small turtles, aquatic birds and relatively fresh carrion. Approximately 90 percent of their diet consists of dead animal and plant matter, and this species plays an important role in keeping lakes and wetlands clean.
Adult snapping turtles have few natural enemies, but both hibernating and young adults are occasionally victims of opportunistic predation by otters and mink. Raccoons, foxes, skunks and opossums often eat snapping turtle eggs.
Unlike most other Ontario turtles, the snapping turtle has a very small plastron and cannot withdraw into its shell for protection when threatened. Therefore, on land this turtle’s only defence from predators is to snap repeatedly and scare them away. In water the snapping turtle rarely snaps at people or other potential threats and will simply swim away if threatened.
Other names: snapper, Testudo serpentine
The threats of habitat loss and degradation do not negatively affect habitat generalists, like the snapping turtle, as severely as they affect some other species at risk. The life history of the snapping turtle, however, like that of most of Ontario’s turtle species, is characterized by a late age of maturity and a slow reproduction rate, and adults normally live a very long time in the wild – up to 70 years for many individuals. As a result, the loss of even a few adult turtles from a population every year is enough to cause that population to decline, and this makes snapping turtle populations very vulnerable to threats such as road mortality, hunting and poaching.
Due to their long life span, snapping turtles bioaccumulate many toxins from their environment and, in addition to any negative effects this bioaccumulation has on the turtles, it makes them very unsafe for human consumption.
The snapping turtle is currently listed as Special Concern under the Ontario Endangered Species Act, 2007 and Special Concern under the federal Species at Risk Act. The species has also been designated as a Specially Protected Reptile under the Ontario Fish and Wildlife Conservation Act. These acts offer protection to individuals and their habitat. The habitat of this species is further protected in Ontario by the Provincial Policy Statement under the Planning Act. The International Union for Conservation of Nature has not assessed the global status of the snapping turtle. The species’ status was confirmed in January 2010. Additional detail about legal protection for species at risk in Ontario is available on our Legal Protection page.
Learn more about reptile and amphibian conservation and what you can do to help these species on our Reptile and Amphibian Stewardship page.