Watch out for the snap

The common snapping turtle is a sinister- looking beast that is just as mean and dangerous as it appears. This large reptile may reach a length of more than three feet and weigh in excess of 50 pounds. It is found throughout the United States and southern Canada east of the Rocky Mountains. The alligator snapping turtle is a close relative that is larger and more ferocious than the common snapper, but it is found in more southerly climes, occurring in Illinois is the extreme southern and southeastern parts of the state.

The common snapping turtle is more common in the Rock River Valley than you might suspect. Its preferred habitat is slow-moving rivers and streams, shallow ponds, and mud -bottomed lakes, making our area ideally suited to its housekeeping requirements.

The female snapper may roam a considerable distance from water in search of a nesting area, and it is not uncommon to have one of these brutes ramble into your backyard or block traffic as she slowly crosses a road. After her wanderlust is satisfied, the female scoops out a shallow nest and lays 24 to 30 spherical, leathery eggs. After covering the eggs with debris, she apparently feels no additional obligations to her offspring and abandons the eggs to be hatched by the heat of the sun or to be eaten by a predator. I have taken note of the fact that Native American and early white settlers in the Midwest considered snapping turtle eggs to be a delicacy.

Some years ago, I was driving along a rural road bordering a forest preserve in Cook County, when I had to brake suddenly to avoid hitting a large snapper creeping across the way. I pulled off to the side and got out of the car to have a closer look at this monster and to take a photograph. As I approached, the turtle drew its head back into the shell and seemed to invoke a defensive posture. I picked up a stick about the diameter of a broom handle and prodded her around the opening in the shell. With speed of a striking rattlesnake, the head shot out and, with an audible snap severed the stick in two as neatly as if it had been struck with a sharp axe.

Though the snapping turtle will certainly attack any animal that disturbs it on land, I have neither heard nor read of a documented account of an attack of a human in the water. Fish make up the bulk of the snapper’s diet, but the turtle may sometimes snatch young ducklings or goslings from beneath and drag them under. To entice fish into the range of its lethal jaws, the snapper waves in the current several pink, filamentous processes attached to its tongue. The unsuspecting fish finds out too late that the worm-like filaments are just another of the snapper’s evolutionary adaptations.

Although snapping turtles are ominous looking creatures, many people consider their meat a delicacy. The diamondback terrapin is the overall favorite of those who relish turtle meat, but it is confined to coastal areas and is less numerous and much smaller in size than the snapper. It is rumored that snapping turtle meat is frequently substituted for diamondback terrapin listed on the menus of fancy restaurants offering such delicacies, and the diner is none the wiser.

One snapper epicure I knew on the eastern shore of Maryland always delayed dispatching any snapping turtle he caught in his traps. The condemned reptiles were forced to pass at least a week on death row in a swill barrel filled with food scraps on which they fattened themselves up for the eventual kill. The method employed by this individual for butchering a snapper for its meat is so gruesome, I will spare the reader the details.

It has not been my pleasure to dine on snapping turtle (unless I have been duped in some restaurant), but I would leap at the chance to do so if the opportunity ever presented itself. But, this occasion will have to be provided by someone else who has captured and accomplished the necessary preparations. I am not about to wrestle with so formidable a creature just to obtain a pound or two of turtle tenderloin—I value my fingers too much.

I once foolishly paid $5 for a cup of diamondback terrapin soup at Bookbinder’s famous seafood restaurant in Philadelphia, but I wonder to this day if I got exactly what I paid for.

Dr. Robert Hedeen is a former resident of Maryland’s eastern shore and resided in the Chicago area from 1960-1971. He is a retired professor emeritus of biological sciences in the University of Maryland system. He has published more than 30 scientific papers, has written numerous magazine articles, and is the author of two books on the natural history of the Chesapeake Bay.

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