Turtles could teach us a thing or two.
These shelled oracles have inspired much advice. Australian athlete Bill Copeland advised us to “Try to be like the turtle — at ease in your own shell.” Wise Dr. Seuss observed that “All the turtles are free – As turtles and, maybe, all creatures should be.” And a Jamaican proverb rightly notes that “Sleepy turtles never catch the sunrise.”
Don’t be surprised if you see a giant snapping turtle taking its time trekking along a trail or pulling itself out of a pond, though don’t expect it to provide any words of wisdom. Some hissing is all that you will get from this animal when you make its acquaintance.
June is turtle time on the Island. If you are in the right place, at the right time, you could see the Vineyard’s largest native land turtle, the snapping turtle, ambling down the lane. These reptiles are in the midst of a mini-migration, leaving their protective ponds to breed inland.
They don’t go far, often no more than two miles, but we are hearing reports of snapping turtle encounters on roads and trails, in driveways and gardens, and on mulch and compost piles Islandwide. Most often folks ask if they should move snapping turtles along or relocate them. The answer is no in both cases. Snapping turtles have small home ranges and instinctively stay within this area their entire life. It is where they want to be.
Handling snapping turtles has its own dangers. Though snapping turtles have no teeth, they do have very sharp and powerful jaws that can easily amputate your finger. A long neck allows them to reach back to their hind legs to snap at a predator (or well-meaning turtle savior)! This neck and snapping response is an adaptation for protection. While most turtles can retreat into their shell, the snapping turtle has a small plastron (bottom shell) that cannot accommodate its entire body, head, and claws. Thus the snapping response is their best defense.
These reptiles are right to be scared of us, since in Massachusetts, snapping turtles can be hunted from Jan. 1 through Dec. 31. Recipes for snapping turtle meat abound on the Internet, with turtle soup or stew being a popular option.
Snapping turtles have avoided the soup pot for a very long time. These creatures go back more than 200 million years, lumbering around before, during and after the dinosaur era. They still look prehistoric, with jagged points at the hind end of their shell.
Their survival is somewhat surprising when you consider that up to 90 per cent of snapping turtle nests are destroyed by predators. So if you see these turtles, give them their space and allow them to go along their way, as they are likely looking for a place to lay their eggs. Up to 80 eggs per nest is possible, though 20 to 30 is more common.
Temperature is the most important factor for the developing snapping turtle eggs laid in the dirt. At 58 degrees, the eggs will become female turtles, at 73 degrees, males happen and above 77, females again result. Some like it hot, I guess. Temperatures can vary in different parts of the nest, so both genders can come from one nest.
Over the next few months these eggs will mature and a few survivors will hatch out and make their way back to the Island’s ponds. The advice that I would offer these new turtles in their new lives would be the same that I would give this season’s fledgling graduates. It comes from Massachusetts chemist, educator and government official James Bryant Conant, who observed that the turtle “makes progress only when he sticks his neck out.”
Suzan Bellincampi is director of the Felix Neck Wildlife Sanctuary in Edgartown.