How to Care for Baby Snapping Turtles
Caring for a baby snapping turtle is not really hard; there's just a lot of time involved, and you need to make sure you create a good habitat and establish good practices to make sure your turtle lives a long time.
When a snapping turtle is a baby, it is very cute and hard to resist. However, they tend to get really large (up to 18 inches long and 86 pounds heavy!) and can be destructive or unhappy if placed in the wrong environment. The fact that they often live from 20 to 50 years (and can live more than 100 years) if cared for properly can be kind of scary to some people. Having a snapping turtle is quite a commitment, so think seriously before deciding if you want to keep one of these reptiles.
Things You Will Need
If you decide you want to keep a baby snapping turtle, here are some things that you will need:
- A tank. A 10-gallon fish tank would be perfect for now; however, when your turtle grows to be 8 inches long, you'll need to consider moving it outside or upgrading to a 55-gallon container. The baby turtles need an island to rest on, but adults don't.
Sand and rocks (some nice big outside rocks would do. I don't use the tiny ones for fear my turtle might mistake them for food and choke on them). Line the tank with aquarium sand or smooth river rocks. When the turtle is young, it will need an island or a shallow flat stone for when it feels like basking in a warm spot.
- A heat lamp while they're young (unless you live in a warm sunny place and plan to keep your pet outside). Position the lamp over the shallowest area of the tank. Turtles don't make their own body heat and sometimes enjoy sunning themselves to regulate their temperature. They like it best around 82.5°F (28.1°C).
- Water (non chlorinated, just like fish tank water). The water in the tank should be shallow—about as deep as the length of your baby turtle's shell. Snappers are poor swimmers and can drown if the water's too deep.
- Filtration. If you don't have a filter, you'll have to change the water quite often. The bigger your turtle gets, the more gunk they make, so seriously consider installing a water filtration system.
- Time, care, and patience.
Building a Good Turtle Habitat
Whether you know it or not, your turtle likes to hide from you. It makes them feel safe and comfortable. There are several ways to build nice places for your turtle to hide whenever it does not feel safe. One way is to take a 20-ounce plastic bottle, clean it out really well, cut both ends off, and put it in the water. What I do is use the rocks and sand in the tank to build a cave. When you do that, the cave will feel more natural to the turtle. If you have the money and don't feel like doing it yourself, you can go out and buy a little cave from the store. Optionally, you can also get little fake plants, although I am not sure how the turtle would respond to them, and it might try to eat them.
Food is one of the most important things for a turtle, but you must be careful not to overfeed or underfeed it. If it looks like its skin is unfolding out of the shell, then it is overfed. If it goes in its shell, and you can barely see it, then it is underfed.
Snapping turtles are omnivores and will eat a whole bunch of stuff. In the wild, they'll eat water plants, fish, frogs, pollywogs, newts, bugs, snails, worms, and snakes. They'll even eat a small mammal or a baby duck!
You'll probably just go to your local pet store to buy turtle food, minnows, worms, or crickets. The young ones are crazy about mealworms, guppies, and ghost shrimp. Turtles will also eat a variety of home food, including bread and bologna. Chicken, beef, turkey, and fish are all good, too. My turtle just loves bologna! If you have the time and patience, you can also go out and catch bugs for this little guy to eat and just put them in the water.
Even if you do buy the turtle food at the store, it's a good idea to give your turtle fresh food, too. Don't forget the vegetables! At least half of the turtle's food should be fresh and "green," as in lettuces and other greens.
Frequently Asked Questions About Snapping Turtles
How do you know if your turtle is a snapping turtle?
The common snapping turtle (Chelydra serpentina) has a brown or black shell (aka a carapace) that is rough and ridged when it's young but gets smooth with age and a lighter-colored bottom (aka plastron). The mottled colors of the shell makes for great camouflage at the bottom of a pond. A snapping turtle can't hide as well as other turtles can, but it can move around more easily: On land, it raises its body up so that only its tail touches the ground. It has a largish head that's shaped like a triangle, a pointy nose, a large mouth, a curved beak that's shaped like a parrot's, and a very long saw-toothed tail. It has no teeth, but look out for that beak!
How big do they get?
On average, these turtles grow to have a shell that's about 10-12 inches long and weigh from 10 to 35 lbs., but some get larger. Some very fat captive snapping turtles get to be over 80 lbs.!
Why is it called a "snapping" turtle?
A snapping turtle won't attack a human unless threatened or provoked, especially if it's on land, but it can defend itself, and snapping is its best defense. It has very strong beak-like jaws and can move its head very far and fast. A snapping turtle can cause serious damage to a careless handler. The turtle might warn you with a hiss before it snaps.
How long will it live?
The lifespan in the wild is unknown, but in captivity, some snappers live 100 years. The average lifespan is 30 or 40 years.
Adult Snapping Turtle
As your turtle grows up, he will get bigger! You should take this into consideration. There will be a time when you will either have to get the turtle a very big tank or hopefully you will have a pond near your house that it can live in.
However, you should never, ever release that turtle into the wild! It will not have the ability or the skill to survive. Plus, it can introduce pathogens, viruses, and bacteria into the wild (things your turtle has built resistance to but the wild turtles have not!), so don't do it!
The age of the dinosaurs was approximately 150 million years ago: 100 million years more recent than the first turtle [...] and humans evolved a mere short 3.5 million years ago.— Susanne Kynast
Handling a Snapping Turtle
Some say that snappers are all snappy and will all grow up to be aggressive, but if handled often from a young age, they can become just as tame as other turtles. If you start when the turtle is still young, handling it often and trying to never hurt it, it will know you're its friend. Still, snapping turtles may snap! And they can reach their heads back a lot further than you can imagine. So no matter what great friends you and your turtle are, you need to be careful.
Never, never try to pick a snapping turtle up by its tail. This can seriously hurt the tail and damage its spine!
If you must lift your turtle, it's better to lift it by the shell, as close to the hind legs as possible.
Interesting fact: When snapping turtles are stressed, they spray a musky odor (sort of like a skunk)!
This article is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge. It is not meant to substitute for diagnosis, prognosis, treatment, prescription, or formal and individualized advice from a veterinary medical professional. Animals exhibiting signs and symptoms of distress should be seen by a veterinarian immediately.