What Do Snapping Turtles Eat?

Answers The Question: What Do Snapping Turtles Eat?

Juvenile common snapping turtle (Photo: Karen McDonald)

Food Preference of Snapping Turtles

You're driving down the road on a perfectly nice Spring day and you spot a turtle. Being the good Samaritan that you are, you decide to get out and help it.  First, you have to identify it, then figure out if it's going to bite you, and if it's safe to move.  I've found myself in this position countless times, usually in sandals and standing a few feet from said turtle wondering if it was going to try to bite. How can you tell if the turtle you're facing is a snapper? Check out these photos:

Common snapping turtle (Photo: Wiki Commons)
Common snapping turtle. Notice the flat shell with serration near the tail, can grow 2 ft or more (Photo: Wiki Commons).

.What to look for to ID a common snapping turtle: 

  • If you approach a snapping turtle on the road, they can't pull into their shell (the shell is too small), so they hiss and may snap at you, though I've usually found they just watch you or run if they can.
  • They are usually found near fresh water, though here where I live they also will inhabit slightly brackish water too.
  • They can range from quarter size (juveniles) to hubcap size or larger. The largest on record was over 75 lbs.,  but usually they are about 5-25 lbs.
  • Their carapace (top shell) is somewhat flattish, and wider toward the rear than the front.
  • The top shell is also usually smooth near the front of the shell and serrated or widely toothed near the back of the shell and the tail.
  • In juveniles the top of the shell usually has a lot of ornamentation, or bumps and ridges.
  • Their shell is covered in "scutes" which are akin to the material our fingernails are made of. There should be 37 on a common snapping turtle (around the edges, tops, and sides).
  • The plastron (bottom shell) is reduced in size, meaning they can't close their shell, and it doesn't cover all their tubby arm bits, which hang out.
  • The plastron is connected by two bone plates or bridges to the carapace.
  • The shell of a snapping turtle is living bone, this is why they don't like it touched. They are essentially sitting inside their rib-cage! This is why all those Saturday morning cartoons where they pop out of their shell are inaccurate.

This is a juvenile snapping turtle, about the size of a silver dollar:

Juvenile common snapping turtle (Photo: Karen McDonald)
Juvenile common snapping turtle (Photo: Karen McDonald)

Regardless of whether you encounter a harmless box turtle or bitey snapping turtle in the road, try to help it get to the side of the road that it's traveling (if it is safe for you). My general feeling is that you shouldn't actually try to handle a snapping turtle but here are a few ideas (note, they don't suggest poking with sticks, this can injure the turtle or he can snap it in half and then it's useless):

So, what do snapping turtles eat?

Contrary to the idea that snapping turtles eat fingers (which they will snap at if you get too close), their diet is wide and varied. They are omnivores, but the majority of their diet is aquatic vegetation (about 65%). This seems contrary to the large set of jaws and defenses they have, but like their dinosaur ancestors they're mostly herbivores. The other major part of their diet is fish. Because they are slow and ungainly swimmers they usually eat slower moving fish and non-game fish species (which also makes them less of a nuisance to fishermen), water snakes, or eels. Occasionally they will eat dead stuff (fish, frogs, animals), amphibians, invertebrates like crayfish, worms, or beetles. They may even eat the occasional small mammal thrown in for variety, after all, balanced diet is a very good thing!

Let's face it, snapping turtles (and especially the huge ones) are like the land barges of the fresh water turtle world. They're slow and not very hydro-dynamic. They would rather eat sessile (not moving) plants than chase down anything. In fact most of their hunting technique consists of sitting in the mud and waiting for something to toodle or swim by. They can sometimes stalk prey by moving slowly and then snapping them up.

Here where I live they also like to eat waterfowl ducklings. I can't tell you how many times I've seen mother geese or Mamma mallards swimming with 10-12 young, and then the next day the number is cut in 1/2. I've even seen ducklings pulled underwater without so much as a ripple of water, just the flash of a turtle shell. From the research I've read, water fowl is only a small part of their diet, and they don't have a major impact on their populations (this is why Mamma ducks and geese have so many young!).

Female snapping turtle buried in the mud (Photo: Karen McDonald).

To answer the question, what do snapping turtles eat?  Well,  the answer is almost anything that is easy to get, and at that,  mostly plants. They aren't a threat to sports fishermen or major fisheries, but they are an important part of wetland food webs. This is why you should always help them across the road (carefully), and let them go on their way.