After finishing a sunrise wildflower photo session at Taberville Prairie Conservation Area north of El Dorado Springs, I noticed what I thought was a basketball-sized clump of grass walking along the side of the road. I put the truck in reverse to get a better look and realized the muddy clump of “grass” was actually a common snapping turtle.
I pulled off the gravel road and grabbed my camera and the 100–400mm lens I had been using to photograph songbirds on the prairie. The turtle took very little notice of me, pausing for only a moment before continuing to amble into the prairie grass. I stayed back with my long lens so as not to cause it any undue stress.
Common snapping turtles (Chelydra serpentina) are distinctive creatures. These aquatic turtles have a large, pointy head, a thick tail, and a smooth shell and are common throughout the state. They are easy to tell apart from the rare and protected alligator snapping turtle by the lack of three large ridges on the top of the shell. The shell itself can be up to 14 inches in length, and the turtle can weigh up to 35 pounds. They are usually found in farm ponds, marshy areas, and rivers. I saw this one near a muddy seep at the headwaters of the Baker Branch Creek on Taberville Prairie.
They don’t spend much time on land, and the females only travel to lay eggs. Females will dig a nest in deep sand or loose soil, and lay 20–30 eggs, typically in June. These hatch 55–125 days later, depending on environmental conditions. Over 80 percent of common snapping turtles’ nests are destroyed by predators, including skunks, raccoons, and mink.
Common snapping turtles tend to eat insects, crayfish, fish, snails, earthworms, amphibians, snakes, small mammals, birds, and carrion. They are an economically important game animal in Missouri, and are prized for their meat for stews and soups. Studies show they don’t harm game fish or waterfowl populations, but they can cause trouble in small, artificial ponds.
To harvest a common snapping turtle, you must have a fishing permit, and it would be wise to look up a few photos to make sure it is not an alligator snapping turtle.
—Story and photograph by David Stonner
We help people discover nature through our online Field Guide. Visit mdc.mo.gov/field-guide to learn more about Missouri’s plants and animals.
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Photographer - David Stonner
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