Tiny snappers get a bucket ride to the lake
At Six Mile Lake, it pays to step carefully, especially this time of year.
The apple trees on our property and the neighbors’ are loaded this year, drawing in deer to feast each day. They have left behind plenty of evidence they’re taking full advantage of the bounty. At least the lawn should be well fertilized.
So while picking my way to the car to head to work Wednesday, I noticed what at first appeared to be a lump of dried mud — but it was moving.
Trundling through the grass and clover was a hatchling turtle, with a shell no wider than a ping-pong ball. It was like one of the mushrooms suddenly had the stem swivel upwards to peer out at the world, then became ambulatory.
Tiny painted turtles are an annual treat to see in the yard, usually turning up in spring. Those emerge after spending the winter in the underground nest where their mother buried her eggs the previous summer, having hatched but not digging out.
But these were little snapping turtles, which neither I nor my mom have ever seen up here, though we’ve witnessed many adult female snappers march like dinosaurs through the backyard to lay eggs in the gravel and sand driveway.
After taking photos, I put the diminutive snapper into a plastic bucket and took a careful walk up the half-circle driveway. Two passes turned up another four hatchlings.
I was struck by how armored these babies were, with sawtoothed shells that had serrated edges. When this small, it probably helps to not be easy to swallow.
They all got a bucket ride down to the lake and gently turned out onto vegetation in the shallows. Most quickly made their way into the weeds and water, though one lingered, drawing the attention of a green frog that started to stalk it. Not sure what the frog had in mind — no way it was going to gulp down even this tiny a turtle without choking.
I wondered, though, why these little snappers were emerging this late in the season rather than remaining underground, like the majority of baby painted turtles do after hatching.
James Harding, an adjunct wildlife specialist at the Michigan State University Museum who raises several species of turtles at his home, had the answer: snapping turtles can’t endure the cold underground the way painted turtles can, though it’s unknown why. If a snapping turtle hatchling isn’t able to make it to water before everything freezes over, it likely won’t survive to spring.
So it was a good move to get them down to the lake, he said, considering the warm Wednesday was followed by a much cooler Thursday and the frost-freeze overnight into Friday. The colder weather might have made the tiny turtles sluggish in struggling to make the journey on their own.
These hatchlings will not eat, given they have a “gut full of yolk” that will need to be digested before they go into torpor for the winter, when they can’t have anything internally that would decay and bloat up the system, he said.
But they might be eaten, Harding said.
“They have a lot of enemies,” he said.
At this size, a baby turtle can be sucked in by a northern pike or largemouth bass, snatched up by herons or birds of prey — Harding said bald eagle nests have been found with young turtle shells underneath — and even tackled by larger-sized green frogs. While young painted turtles appear to instinctively “scratch like crazy” if swallowed, threatening enough internal damage they may be spit out, snapping turtle hatchlings are more likely to rely on staying still and not being seen, Harding said.
If the tiny snappers manage to navigate these dangerous times, they’ll need to find a good hibernating spot on the lake bottom, Harding said. It’s a myth, he added, that turtles burrow into the mud, as they have to be able to take in some oxygen underwater, through the skin and, oddly, “cloacal respiration” — humorously referred to as “breathing through their butts,” though it’s not exactly the same, just another way to absorb oxygen from the water.
The process is well explained in Harry Baker’s Live Science article, “Can turtles really breathe through their butts?” published July 31 at https://www.livescience.com/can-turtles-breathe-through-butts.
In the article, Baker quotes Craig Franklin, a wildlife physiologist at The University of Queensland in Australia, that cloacal respiration allows some river turtles to remain underwater longer, so they don’t have to expend energy and expose themselves by frequently going to the surface. Franklin notes that juvenile turtles tend to be better at it, probably to avoid predators. “The greatest risk of predation for a hatching turtle is swimming through the water column to the surface,” Franklin said.
This was in reference to Australian turtles but could be expected to apply here as well.
Another myth, Harding said, is turtles completely shut down throughout the winter. He has seen turtles move under the ice, though that movement will be limited to keep from expending too much energy.
The young snapping turtles that make it through the challenges of predators and seasons will reach maturity at about 8 inches in 10 to 12 years, at which point they face few natural threats except being struck by vehicles or killed by humans. Unlike some other species, such as wood turtles, snapping turtles will continue growing throughout their lifetime, Harding said. They can live 30 to nearly 50 years, according to the University of Michigan Museum of Zoology’s Animal Diversity Web site, https://animaldiversity.org.
So good luck to the quintuplets. Perhaps in a decade or so I’ll be lucky enough to see one haul itself through the backyard and dig into the driveway to start the next generation.
Betsy Bloom can be reached at 906-774-2772, ext. 240, or email@example.com.