Thom Smith | Nature Watch: Turtle Season - How old is this little guy?

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Q: On Saturday, June 9, we were riding the rail trail when we were stopped by a kid and dad who had found a baby snapping turtle. All of us were confounded by this as we had just seen the moms burying eggs the week before and thought the eggs need to incubate for something like 60 days or more. Is it possible these moms were out in March or April burying eggs?

My latest theory is that this little fellow was actually a yearling. Could that be possible? I am attaching a photo of the little guy.

— Abby

A: There are several possibilities, but one I propose is it hatched late from its egg last fall and remained in the nest through the winter, waiting for warmer weather. It recently left the nest to head to the lake when it encountered two-legged trail users. This is a somewhat common occurrence among other turtles, too, the red-bellied cooters (turtles) in Plymouth County, for instance. I was involved with this species between 1985 and my retirement from The Berkshire Museum, being part of what is called a "head start" program in which various schools, museums and aquariums would take a number of newly emerged late summer/early fall baby turtles to be cared for throughout the coming winter months and fed "on demand," in warm water with artificial lighting allowing for continuous growth. The resulting cooters were the safer size of several year-old individuals the following spring instead of the hatchlings going directly to the ponds upon emerging, where hungry bullfrogs, large fish, herons and other predators would eat them. Head starting was considered necessary because of the rarity of the species.

When we began, there were just a couple hundred survivors, whereas today that number has reached several thousand. A few of the organizations, ours included, would sometimes head start the springtime emerging babies to be released the following fall, when a new group of hatchings were available to be head started. Head starting common species, like the painted or snapping turtles, is not necessary, but the protocol has been proven successful. So successful that one of our female head started red-bellied cooters was found laying eggs several years later — and we had the honor of head starting a second generation!

Returning to the subject of snapping turtles. Females in Western Massachusetts and Southern Vermont are usually seen laying eggs in in late May through early June and hatch three to four months later. Variables in temperature prevent being more precise. Snapping turtle hatchlings along the Ashuwillticook Rail Trail (Lanesborough, Cheshire and Adams) haven't far to migrate to reach water, others may have to travel a quarter of a mile (and often even more) and just how they navigate is still unknown.

OTHER SNAPPING TURTLE QUESTIONS

Q: How many eggs do snapping turtles lay? I found a nest in mid-June near the shore of a pond in Bennington Vt., that was destroyed by some animal. Many of the eggs, if not all, were destroyed at the site. The first question that came to mind was how many eggs were there? It must be known about how many they lay. And what would have plundered the nest?

— Brian, Bennington, Vt.

A: Female snappers lay between 20 and 40 eggs that resemble ping-pong balls. I imagine the number is somewhat based on age and health of turtle. The sorry fact is that nearly 90 percent of the nests will be destroyed by raccoons and skunks. Others prey upon turtle eggs, including crows and mink.

Q: Why would a snapping turtle dig several nests in our small garden? We did manage to locate one she was at for hours and decided this must be with eggs and left it with hope for success.

— Alex, Williamstown

A: Snapping turtles, especially, are not the brightest looking looking turtle, but females are cunning and often dig several nests that some biologists call "false" nests. This is possibly to confuse potential predators. Another reason is if a female is disturbed, she will move on and begin again. Many turtle species will make false nests. And as landowners, it is our responsibility to avoid bringing attention to the nest.

Thom Smith welcomes readers' questions and comments. Email him at Naturewatch@live.com or write him care of The Berkshire Eagle, 75 S. Church St., Pittsfield, MA 01201.



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