Searching For Snapping Turtles
May 31, 2016
Jon Schmoker invited Larry and me to go along with him while he looked for snapping turtles and their nests. The temperatures had warmed up enough over the weekend that the turtles were on the move. Larry and I met up with Jon at his place shortly before 7:00 pm. I hoped we’d actually see the nesting turtles. There had been thunderstorms and rain throughout the afternoon, which had subsided to a few sprinkles off and on by evening. The temperature was high, around sixty seven degrees. High temperatures combined with thunderstorms made for ideal turtle activity. Jon was just finishing loading his ATV with the needed equipment when we arrived. We climbed in, and we were off. We went back up Highway 84 a little bit, pulled into Les Schmoker’s driveway, just before the bridge, continued past his house along the sandy drive, then turned left on the drive, and followed that for a little ways. We stopped near the cornfield on our left, to our right were woods, the same woods which Larry and I carried the canoe through last October. We were southeast of both Jon and Les’ houses.
The cornfield was our destination. The soil was completely sand, ideal nesting grounds. First, Jon showed and explained a test dig to us as we found a spot where a turtle had started digging but decided not to nest there. It was all new to me and exciting; very neat to see the print of the turtle, body, legs and, most prominently, tail in the sand, like a snow angel. It was so exciting to think a turtle had been there perhaps not too many minutes ago. We continued walking through the field. Jon found a nest – the print of the turtle wasn’t visible. Jon carefully poked a stick into the nest to make sure it was actually a nest. Larry joked to Les Schmoker, who had driven over in his truck to see what we were doing, “I feel like I’m watching a diviner search for water.” Jon was able to feel eggs within. However, just double checking, and probably more for my benefit, Jon proceeded to dig up the nest a little. I peered down into the nest and observed four white splotches in the sand, eggs still mostly submerged. Jon very tenderly pulled an egg out so I could get a better look at it. The egg was a small white gray ball, between a ping pong ball and a golf ball in size. He explained that there is a white spot on the egg, the baby turtle attaches to that with its egg tooth, so it should be facing up. Hatchlings use their egg tooth and claws to break out of their shell and then dig their way out of the nest. From there, they have to find water. Jon carefully returned the egg and then filled the hole back in, covering the nest up better than the female turtle had done. Next, he placed a wire cage over the nest and pounded stakes in to hold it. He stuck a pole with tape on it inside too, to mark the spot when the corn is tall. The cage will hopefully keep raccoons, skunks and coyotes from eating the eggs. Fox, mink and opossum will also dig up nests and eat the eggs and crows may snack on a hatchling as it makes its trek to the water. The destruction rate of nests in some areas is 90% and death rates of hatchlings is from 60% – 100%, which means of the 10 -100 eggs lain by a female in one clutch, only about 30% (on average) will survive to adulthood. Adult snapping turtles have few predators other than humans and their vehicles.
We walked a little further and found another nest, same procedure. Jon, citing his experiences, said, “snapping turtles won’t go further than 100 yards away from water. And they like knolls.” Snapping turtles will travel up to nearly 900 yards to find suitable nesting sites but they are susceptible to desiccation (rapidly losing body water by evaporation) so 100 yards is ideal.
Larry asked, “Do you find them anywhere else or just in the tilled field?”
Jon replied, “Mainly in the field. Easy digging.” A few minutes later, Jon said, “I was hoping there’d be some mamas out here so Bethany could take pictures.” As he put stakes in, Jon mentioned he found nests that were just eggshells and how disappointing it is to see the nests raided. Raccoons, skunks, even moles have destroyed some nests Jon has looked after. Jon told us of how his interest in protecting/aiding snapping turtles started. It began in 2000, when he built his house – there was a turtle nesting in the sand. He then began collecting eggs and incubating them. When they hatched, he’d release the baby turtles near the water across the road and prairie. He figured if he could just get them to the water they’d have a chance. He estimated he has released thousands over the years.
We heard frogs singing in the distance, probably hanging out in the pond closer to Les’ house. Larry asked if I knew what it was. “A frog, but I can’t remember which. I hear it at home though.”
He replied, “It’s a tree frog.”
I replied, “Yeah, now I recognize it.” Then Larry walked back to get another cage and stakes for Jon while we walked to another nest Jon had found earlier, marked and covered with a larger cage. As he knelt down, Jon almost crushed a perfect, dead dragonfly. He handed it to me. It was such a beauty. A darner, its size and coloring – blue and green – gave it away. As we got back into the ATV and I showed the dragonfly to Larry, he wondered, “Why would you want to have such bright colors?” There were no more nests in the field. Sadly, no mama turtles either. So we headed out, back along the driveway, past the small cabins, barn, and Les’ house and on to the road. As we drove, Jon was telling us stories about moles digging in the nests and how sometimes he would water the nests to keep the eggs from getting too warm in the summer heat. It had begun misting again and felt cooler moving at that speed along the road; I was starting to feel cold and was glad to be nestled between the two men. We continued past Jon’s place, the prairie on our left. Just beyond Jon’s place, Larry pointed out a sandhill crane almost hiding in the little bluestem in the prairie. We’d already passed it when Jon asked if I wanted a picture of it; I replied, no, thinking by slowing down it would spook and fly away.
“No, I just want her to get a picture.” He thought we’d be more likely to see a turtle there. We walked along the sandy driveway following Larry’s and my previous path. Larry and Jon were curious about the trees being cut down too. We came to the dead animal lying in the middle of the path; it had decayed quite a bit since the 22nd. Jon said, “Fawn,” seeing the back bone. He and Larry bent over, examining it. Larry said, “It’ got canine teeth though,” which ruled out a fawn as a possibility. They both concurred it was most likely an opossum. I said, “I have a picture of it with its tail.” Larry asked if it was an opossum tail. I thought it could have been. We continued walking through the trees.
Just before the last tree, among the cut branches in the mud, I spied a large turtle, “Look!” I pointed it out to Jon and Larry. They paused to take a look. We all admired the large snapping turtle; its green bumpy shell, the quintessential “turtle shell”, brown limbs, long claws on its feet, long tail. Her shell isn’t actually green but brown, black or olive; it just looks green because it’s covered in algae and mud. She turned her head to look at me. She blinked her eyes at me. Jon said, “I always thought they looked prehistoric.” Indeed with their, thick legs, long claws, the shape of their head, saw tooth projections on their tails, and the serrations on the back edge of their dorsal shell, they do look akin to dinosaurs.
We continued walking, out from the trees into the field. Jon said, “The turtles become stoic when they’re nesting so they aren’t dangerous.”Jon told us he had to quit incubating the eggs because someone from the DNR called him and said, “We know what you’re doing with the turtle eggs and you’re going to stop or we’ll fine you per egg.” Jon was just trying to give the turtles a fighting chance. He told us stories of seeing raccoons waiting behind the nesting mother, eating the eggs as she laid them.
Larry asked, “Who did you talk to from the DNR?”
Jon replied, “You know, I don’t know, Larry.”
Larry replied, “You should be able to get a permit under Steve.” Since snapping turtles are not currently listed as a threatened species, it seems the DNR is not as concerned about their protection. They told Jon he could pass disease on to the turtles, which is true, but highly unlikely. Jon’s counter argument is that random people can volunteer to move turtles off the road. Larry thought if we were still living in a natural system we should leave the turtles alone, but he said we are no longer living in a natural system. Humans have greatly altered the natural system. In the case of the turtles; humans till fields so all the turtles nest in one area and the predators come to a buffet. The practice of planting corn to feed wild predators artificially boosts their population and concentrates them in that same area. Given that we exacerbated the issue, humans need to assist wildlife to ensure their survival but a balance has to be achieved that is beneficial to all species.
In 1984, the Minnesota DNR listed snapping turtles as a special concern species since the commercial harvest could have a detrimental effect on local populations of snapping turtles. There was also concern about environmental contaminants after a study showed high levels of PCBs in the liver, eggs, fat and muscle tissue of turtles living in the Mississippi River and the effects of these contaminants on the turtles reproductive capacity were (and still are) unknown. In 2001, a study was done on turtle populations in the Weaver Bottoms area which included snapping turtles. The study found reduced numbers of snapping turtles in the area. A skewed sexual ratio, a lower percentage of females than there should have been, suggested commercial harvesting may be partly responsible since something is impacting females more than males. (The harvest season runs from March to November, the nesting season is May to June…nesting females make easy targets. The current harvesting rules allow the harvest of the most reproductive females and also very young females.) Due to the findings in the 2001 study, new regulations for harvesting snapping turtles were made and implemented in 2004. Licenses are now restricted to Minnesota residents, there’s now a limit on the number of traps permitted, and a moratorium was placed on the sale of new licenses, which means they are no longer issuing new licenses. The licenses can be passed on to family member of a licensee. Prior to the changes, harvesters were not required to keep track of how many turtles they caught; now they must keep a daily log of trap locations and how many turtles are harvested which must be submitted monthly during the trapping season. These changes led to the delisting of snapping turtles as a special concern. However, Jon says he has been seeing a decrease in snapping turtles over the last few years.
Jon explained, “Turtles stay in the water for twelve years before coming out to lay eggs.” Snapping turtles can become sexually mature by five to seven years old, but ten to twelve years seems to be more common. Snapping turtles mate in the water. Mating occurs during chance encounters between April and October. Courtship, which takes place at the bottom of the water, entails facing one another and making sideward sweeps of their necks. The male then forcibly mount the female, griping her carapace with his claws and bites her neck and head. Females can retain viable sperm for several years.
We saw another turtle plodding along in the sandy field, “Make sure you get a picture of her tracks.” Amazing and exciting, I was thrilled! We observed three more backed into nests. It was so awesome to witness. The female turtle digs the nest entirely with their hind legs. She guides each deposited egg into the hole with her hind legs. I walked up to each one, taking a good look at them, totally engrossed by them. It wasn’t my first time seeing a wild snapping turtle, but it was my first time observing their amazing trek out of the water into the sand to dig a nest and lay their eggs. (The turtles I saw hadn’t started depositing eggs yet.) I was somewhat lost in the turtle world while the men continued to talk about the plight of the snapping turtles.
Larry replied, “You’ve eliminated a lot of the threat by getting them that far.” Although they are better off in the water, young turtles they can still fall prey to herons, bitterns, and bullfrogs, but their list of predators does go down considerably.
After a pause, Larry asked, “Do you ever mark them?”
“No,” answered Jon. We observed the turtles for a little longer then headed back up the driveway to the ATV and drove back to Jon’s place. Jon would like to see a study done on the snapping turtles, from egg to adulthood diets, travel, winter areas and why we have a decline in numbers. Further study also needs to be done on the effect of contaminants in snapping turtles. An analysis of harvest patterns is needed to assess its impact on local populations. Temperature has an effect on turtle gender, more females result from warmer temperatures and more males from cooler temperatures; this may be a concern with global climate changes. Habitat loss may also be another concern.
On the bright side, snapping turtles eat such a large variety of foods; if they specialized in only a few food items, their conservation would be more difficult. They’ll eat various types of aquatic plants, insects, leeches, earthworms, snails, clams, fresh water sponges, crayfish, fish eggs, fish, tadpoles, frogs, toads, amphibian eggs, salamanders, snakes, small turtles, birds, small mammals and carrion.
There is one more thing in the favor of the snapping turtles of Minnesota: ordinary people, without biology or herpetology degrees, care about the future and presence of snapping turtles in our waters and are making efforts to protect and preserve this incredible creature.