A dark, heavy creature with glaring eyes, steel-trap jaws, algae-covered back and long armored tail sits like a rock on the river’s muddy bottom, waiting.
At the flash of silver scales, he explodes forward, clamps onto his prey and finishes the fish in one gulp.
Snapping turtles live up to their name like few animals do.
Meet the low-profile member of the chelonian clan, Chelydra serpentina, or common snapping turtle.
This Great Lakes native is still common in the Chicago River system, especially in sections buffered by parks and preserves. Specimens with foot-long carapaces, or upper shells, have been spotted in the Middle Fork, North Shore Channel and North and South Branches.
They’re in the Des Plaines River too, as well as in natural and manmade lakes, ponds in parks and office campuses, quarries, golf course water traps, even Lake Michigan. Snappers prefer bodies of water with soft, muddy bottoms for hunkering down to ambush prey.
Tiny hatchlings are seen often enough to indicate that the species is perpetuating is presence, despite ongoing fragmentation and loss of upland nesting habitat. Mama snappers often lumber far overland in search of the right soil conditions in which to tuck their three dozen or so eggs. Locally, they’ve been documented resorting to nesting in railroad beds, road embankments and even golf course sand traps. Traversing these urban landscapes exposes the females to traffic and concentrates nests where raccoons, skunks and other predators can find the eggs.
Snappers’ continued survival lies in the fact that they aren’t fussy about what they eat or where they live. In addition to ambushing fish and aquatic birds, they scavenge for carrion and consume aquatic vegetation. They can persist in pollution and adapt to marinas as well as marshes. Snappers are even cold-tolerant and can sometimes be seen moving under the frozen surface of a pond or lake.
Turtles all have one thing in common: the shell. Whether it’s sea turtle Nickel’s streamlined version, or the domed fortress of Amazon Rising’s yellow-footed tortoise, the bony shell, firmly fused to ribs, pelvis and shoulders, has given turtles a sturdy mobile home for about 220 million years.
All that snapper attitude doesn’t hurt, either—unless you’re on the receiving end. Snapping turtle appreciation is a hands-off activity, and on land, the safest view is from the rear. Snappers can launch themselves forward unexpectedly in open-jawed self-defense. They’ll also strike if lifted from the water. While the three-keeled carapace is a nice shield, the bottom shell, or plastron, is pretty skimpy, exposing a lot of the turtle’s soft parts. When the shell coverage goes down, the aggression factor goes up. The snapping reflex is present even before a hatchling is totally out of the egg.
Our immediate area is rich in reptile life as far as turtles and snakes go. A quiet walk through the Cook County forest preserves might reveal some of our 16 or so local snake species, including eastern milk snake, red-bellied snake, midland brown snake, smooth green snake, common garter snake and our own endemic Chicago garter snake. Two more receive state protection: the threatened Kirtland’s snake and the endangered eastern massasauga rattlesnake.
In addition to the common snapper, nearly a dozen turtle species call the Chicago area home, including the eastern box turtle, musk turtle, spiny softshell, the ubiquitous painted turtle and two state endangered species, the spotted turtle and the Blanding’s turtle (shown here). We’re light on lizards: Six-lined racerunners, slender glass lizards and common five-lined skinks are rare where they are still present in Cook or a few collar counties. And we are completely and historically depauperate in crocodilians. Alligators never got farther north than southern Arkansas.
But times are tough for reptiles, here and around the world. Pollution, the degradation or destruction of habitat including nesting areas, over- and illegal collection for both the pet trade and the table, predation by introduced domestic animals and climate disruption increasingly threaten these tough survivors, many of which have naturally small and therefore vulnerable ranges. Of more than 8,700 reptile species, only 1,386 have been evaluated for conservation status so far by the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN). Of those 423 are in serious danger of extinction.
You can combine action with awareness to help reptiles. Some of it is basic conservation that’s good for all of us:
- Keep toxic household, yard and garden products out of the environment because whether you rinse, flush, or let it run off, it all goes downstream.
- Reduce, reuse and recycle plastics; assorted plastic debris can be mistaken for food and not-totally-biodegraded microparticles can get into all of us.
- Shrink your carbon footprint.
Of course, avoid products made from reptiles. When you’re looking for a reptile companion animal, please be sure you can meet its dietary, environmental and veterinary needs, including wellness exams. And know where it came from. Get in touch with enthusiast groups like the Chicago Herpetological Society for reputable breeders and even rescued animals.
Finally, put your hands where your heart is. Take part in one of Shedd’s Great Lakes Action Days, if not before the end of this season, then bright and early next year so our reptile buddies can emerge from hibernation into cleaner, healthier habitats. Shedd’s cleanup and restoration projects from one end of our Lake Michigan shoreline to the other will not only benefit the local herpetofauna—they’ll make you feel good, too.
— Karen Furnweger, web editor
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