Like all other turtles, snapping turtles require a suitable habitat, appropriate temperatures and a healthy diet to thrive. Although their size and disposition make them challenging captives, snapping turtles are popular pets among a small subset of the turtle-keeping community. Beginners should avoid working with snapping turtles, but experienced keepers, who have the necessary skills, knowledge and resources to provide good husbandry, often enjoy their pets greatly.
First Things First
Snapping turtle ownership is not something to embark upon hastily. These reptilian beasts reach large sizes, live long lives and represent a serious hazard to their keepers. Although snapping turtles would rather be left alone than try to bite a human, they will not hesitate to do so when frightened. While most descriptions of their bite force are overstated, even the bite of a 6-inch-long juvenile can cause deep lacerations. Accordingly, snapping turtles are only appropriate pets for experienced keepers who have the resources to care for these species properly.
Snapping turtles receive legal protection in some areas, so check with your state’s Department of Natural Resources or Department of Agriculture to determine the legal status of snapping turtles in your area. Local university extension offices also may be able to provide this information.
A Tale of Two Species
Two turtle species bear the common name “snapping turtle,” and, given the considerable differences between the two species, it is important to distinguish between the two.
The common snapping turtle (Chelydra serpentina) is the more commonly kept and widely ranging of the two species. Found over much of North America, these turtles are very adaptable, and inhabit virtually every suitable pond, river and reservoir within their range. Common snapping turtles reach an average 12 to 15 inches in length, and large individuals may weigh 25 pounds or more.
Until the rediscovery of a species formerly presumed extinct, herpetologists considered alligator snapping turtles (Macrochelys temminckii) to be the largest freshwater species in the world. While they no longer hold that title, these leviathans may reach lengths in excess of 2 feet and tip the scales at more than 200 pounds. Unlike the weedy common turtles, who are quite common, alligator snapping turtles prefer to live in large rivers in the southern and central United States.
Although it can be more challenging to distinguish the two species as hatchlings, adults of each species are rather easy to identify. Whereas the shell of adult common snappers is relatively smooth, adult alligator snapping turtles -- often described as looking “prehistoric” -- bear three distinct keels, or ridges, along their carapaces. The heads of common snapping turtles are oval, while the large heads of alligator snapping turtles are triangular.
Obtaining Your Pet
While it may be legal to collect snapping turtles from the wild in your state, always try to acquire captive bred specimens whenever possible. Not only will these adapt better to life in captivity, they do not put pressure on wild populations. An Internet search will reveal numerous turtle breeders who will ship your new pet.
Be sure that you have your new pet’s habitat set up before having him shipped. That way, you can simply unbox him and introduce him to his new home, where he can relax and settle in.
Regardless of which species you intend to keep, your snapping turtle will need a very spacious tank. Using a large enclosure not only provides more room for the turtle, but it helps keep the water clean and allows you to put hiding places and other structures in the habitat.
A 50- to 60-gallon aquarium with a screened lid provides enough space for hatchlings of either species, but your pet is likely to outgrow it within a year or so. At this point, you may as well provide your turtle with his permanent home. Such homes should be at least 250 gallons or so in size, but even larger habitats are preferable. The ideal habitat for most turtles is some type of outdoor pond. Be sure to place a fence or concrete wall a few feet away from the pond’s shoreline, to prevent your pet from wandering off. Adult snapping turtles fear no predators except Homo sapiens and perhaps the occasional alligator or larger snapping turtle. Once they are about 12 inches long they are safe from most suburban predators.
You can use gravel as a substrate, or you can forgo a substrate completely, which will help keep the pond cleaner. Use a filter that features biological, chemical and mechanical stages to keep the water clean. Because turtles are much messier than fish, select a model rated for a pond twice as large as your pond is. If this is not possible, use two filters.
If you live within the natural range of snapping turtles, and place the pond in a partially sunny location, supplemental heating or lighting equipment is usually unnecessary. However, keepers living in northern latitudes must be sure to use a pond deep enough that at least 12 inches of water will remain liquid at the bottom of the pond. Your snapping turtle will burrow down at the bottom of the pond, where he will spend the entire winter.
Snapping turtles do not often climb out of the water to bask, but they will use branches and rocks to help reach the surface in deep ponds. Instead, they tend to swim lazily at the surface of the water to bask. Because of their aggressive, territorial personalities and intolerance of other turtles, neither snapping turtle species makes a good candidate for mixed-species ponds.
As carnivores, alligator snapping turtles will subsist on a diet of live fish. Try to offer a variety of species, but avoid goldfish and other species that frequently carry parasites. Some keepers try to keep a small population of fish in the pond at all times, enabling the turtle to snack as he wishes, while others offer several fish to their turtle two or three times per week. Young individuals of both species thrive on a varied diet of earthworms, crickets, roaches, shrimp, fish and newborn rodents.
Common snapping turtles also subsist largely on fish and other aquatic critters, but, in the wild, they include aquatic vegetation in their diet. You can offer your pet leafy green vegetables once a week to simulate this food source. Many common snapping turtles also will eat fruit, such as strawberries and grapes.
You can provide your turtle with frozen-thawed rodents, ducks or chicks from time to time. Be sure to use long forceps when offering such items to your turtle.
Interacting with Your Pet
Snapping turtles are primarily look but don’t touch pets. They are wonderful to observe, but handle them as little as possible. Many snapping turtles experience stress when handled and keepers put themselves at risk when doing so.
You can hold hatchlings of either species by placing your thumb under their plastron and your first finger on top of their carapace. However, juveniles and adults require more care.
If you must pick up a large alligator snapping turtle, you can do so by placing your left hand on the carapace directly behind the head, and your right hand on the rear margin of the carapace. Common snappers, on the other hand, are much harder to handle and can bite you if you try to use this technique on them.
Instead, the only ways to handle a common snapping turtle safely are by either sliding your palm under the rear of the animal’s plastron and lifting him up or holding the sides of his shell with your hands, near the rear feet. You can try to scoop up large snapping turtles with a wide shovel, but never pick one up by the tail, as this can damage his spine.
Because you will pay a steep price if you handle your snapping turtle incorrectly, it is wise to obtain direct instruction from an experienced keeper before attempting to handle any snapping turtle.