A Guide to the Amphibians
and Reptiles of California

Eastern Snapping Turtle -
Chelydra serpentina serpentina

(Linnaeus, 1758)
Click on a picture for a larger view

Eastern Snapping Turtle locations in Calfiornia
Areas of introduction in California: Red

observation link

An alien species
- not native to California.
It is against the law to capture, move, possess, collect, or distribute this invasive species in California.

Eastern Snapping Turtle Eastern Snapping Turtle Eastern Snapping Turtle
Adult, found crossing a trail near a small lake in Orange County. © Jonathan Hakim
Eastern Snapping Turtles From Outside California
Eastern Snapping Turtle Eastern Snapping Turtle Eastern Snapping Turtle
Eastern Snapping Turtle Eastern Snapping Turtle  
Adult found about to cross a busy street on a hot April afternoon in Brevard County, Florida
snapping turtle snapping turtle snapping turtle
  Adult, Fairfax County, Virginia  
snapping turtle snapping turtle snapping turtle
  Adult, Fairfax County, Virginia  
Eastern Snapping Turtle Eastern Snapping Turtle Eastern Snapping Turtle
Adult, Tompkins Co., NY © Joyce Gross Large old adult swimming on top of aquatic vegetation,
showing the very long neck of this species, Hays County, Texas
Eastern Snapping Turtle Eastern Snapping Turtle  
Juvenile, Cumberland County, Pennsylvania © William Flaxington  
Eastern Snapping Turtle Eastern Snapping Turtle  
Adult, Kansas © Jeremy Huff  
California Habitat
Eastern Snapping Turtle Habitat Eastern Snapping Turtle Habitat Eastern Snapping Turtle Habitat
Habitat, Orange County. © Jonathan Hakim ©1998 Allen McConnell
According to news reports, the resident snapping turtles in this San Francisco pond occasionally bite off the legs of birds floating on the water.
Eastern Snapping Turtle Habitat Eastern Snapping Turtle Habitat  
Snapping turtles have shown up in various locations in California, including the lake in San Luis Obispo County shown on the left, and the lake in Santa Barbara County shown on the right. It is not known if all of these populations are established and breeding.  
Short Video
  Eastern Snapping Turtle  
  As I was driving on a busy highway in Brevard County, Florida, I saw a snapping turtle trying to cross the highway. I quickly stopped and ran toward it, which caused it to turn around, sparing its life, no doubt. After taking some still shots, I only got a few seconds of video before it sat still. I tried to move it so it would walk again, but decided to give up after it snapped at my fingers a couple of times. Maybe I'll do better next time....  
8 - 18.5 inches in shell length (20.3 - 47 cm). (Stebbins 2003)

A large freshwater turtle with a massive head with huge hooked jaws, a long tail, a saw-toothed crest, and a shell that looks like it is too small to fit the body.
The legs are large with webbed toes and heavy claws.
The tail is longer than half the length of the carapace.

Average weight is around 45 lbs, but some captives have weighed in at over 75 lbs.
Color and Pattern
The skin is gray, black, yellow, or tan, with tubercles on the neck.
White flecks occur on some individuals.
The color of the carapace ranges from black, brown, or olive to tan.
Often it is covered with mud or algae, which helps camouflage the turtle.
It is heavily serrated on the rear, and scutes may have a pattern of radiating lines.
The plastron is tan or yellow.
Male / Female Differences
Males typically grow larger than females.
Young have 3 prominent serrated ridges on the carapace. These ridges become less conspicuous as the turtle ages. The tail of a juvenile is longer than the length of the shell.

Life History and Behavior

Aquatic, found in or near water.
An excellent swimmer.
Considered most active at night in the southern part of its range, it is apparently more active during the day in the northern part of its range, which probably includes the Southern California locations, also.

Sometimes seen basking on or under the surface in shallow water.
Often rests buried in the mud with its eyes and nostrils exposed in water shallow enough that it can raise its long neck up to allow the nostrils to break the surface and breathe without moving out of the mud.

Active most of the year, becoming dormant in areas with cold winters, generally in late October.
Remains dormant either burrowed into the mud bottom, or under overhanging banks, root snags, stumps, brush, logs, or other debris.
Large groups have been found hibernating together, sometimes with other turtle species.
Emerges some time between March to May, depending on the climate.
Longevity has been estimated at up to 40 years.
Snapping turtles are ill-tempered and capable of producing a very serious bite.
Diet and Feeding
Omnivorous, eating anything that fits into its jaws, including snails, earthworms, shrimp, crayfish, insects, fish, frogs, salamanders, reptiles, small turtles, snakes, birds, mammals, plants, carrion.
Young turtles tend to forage actively, while adults tend to lie in ambush.
Adults become sexually mature in four to five years.
Females crawl onto land, sometimes travelling over great distances, to dig a nest where they lay a clutch of eggs, generally from 20 - 40, (ranging from 6 - 104).
Egg laying takes place mostly in June and July (but can occur any time between May and October).
The eggs hatch in 9 - 18 weeks.
During cold winters, hatchlings will overwinter in the nest.
Females may retain viable sperm for several years, so they do not necessarily need to breed with a male each year to produce viable eggs.

Geographical Range
According to Robert Stebbins in California Amphibians and Reptiles, 1972, and in his 2012 field guide, this species was reported as established in Fresno County near Fresno. His 2003 field guide lists it as present at Andree Clark Bird Refuge in Santa Barbara, and along the lower Colorado River. His 2012 guide does not mention the Colorado River.
Jeffrey M. Lemm (2006) states that a snapping turtle nest was seen on the San Diego River in Mission Valley.
Other locations for this alien turtle that I have found include the Palace of Fine Arts in San Francisco, Oso Flaco Lake in San Luis Obispo County, Piute Ponds at Edwards Air Force Base and Haines Creek ponds in Los Angeles County, the marsh near the UC Irvine campus in Orange County, and UCSB lagoon, Childs Estate Zoo, and Alice Keck Memorial Park in Santa Barbara County. I have also received email reports of snapping turtle sightings at Big Bear Lake, San Bernardino County, and Carlsbad, San Diego County.  All of these locations may not all represent established populations.

Chelydra serpentina serpentina, Eastern Snapping Turtle, ranges from southeastern Canada to Florida, west to eastern New Mexico, and north, east of the Rocky Mountains, to southcentral Canada. (A second subspecies occurs in Florida).

The species Chelydra serpentina - Common Snapping Turtle ranges from southern Canada to Ecuador, though not continuously. It has been introduced into a few areas west of the Rockies where it may or may not be established, including Oregon, Washington, Utah, Nevada, Arizona, and California, mostly in populated areas along the coast and the lower Colorado River.

Found in just about every type of freshwater habitat in its natural range, including marshes, ponds, lakes, rivers, and slow streams. Prefers slow-moving shallow waters with a muddy or sandy bottom and abundant aquatic vegetation or submerged roots and trees. Also occurs at the edges of deep lakes and rivers and in brackish coastal waters.

Notes on Taxonomy
Four species are known, with two north of Mexico.

Conservation Issues  (Conservation Status)
This voracious predator may pose a threat to the survival of native animals. It has been introduced into various locations probably due to negligent pet owners. It is not known if turtles in these locations are reproducing, but some nesting has been observed.

It is against the law to capture, move, possess, collect, or distribute this invasive species.
See: California Department of Fish and Game Restricted Species Regulations

Snapping turtle meat is considered a delicacy, and is often used in turtle soup. Some populations have been severely decimated from overhunting.
Family Chelydridae Snapping Turtles Gray, 1870
Genus Chelydra Snapping Turtles Schweigger, 1812
Species serpentina Common Snapping Turtle Schweigger, 1812

serpentina Eastern Snapping Turtle (Linnaeus, 1758)
Original Description
Chelydra serpentina - (Linnaeus, 1758) - Syst. Nat., 10th ed., Vol. 1, p. 199

from Original Description Citations for the Reptiles and Amphibians of North America © Ellin Beltz

Meaning of the Scientific Name
Chelydra - Greek - chelys- turtle, and hydros - water serpent - refers to the aquatic nature of the genus.
serpentina - Latin - serpentina snake-like — refers to the snake-like neck.

from Scientific and Common Names of the Reptiles and Amphibians of North America - Explained © Ellin Beltz

Alternate Names
Common Snapping Turtle

Related or Similar California Turtles

More Information and References
California Department of Fish and Wildlife

Stebbins, Robert C., and McGinnis, Samuel M.  Field Guide to Amphibians and Reptiles of California: Revised Edition (California Natural History Guides) University of California Press, 2012.

Stebbins, Robert C. California Amphibians and Reptiles. The University of California Press, 1972.

Stebbins, Robert C. A Field Guide to Western Reptiles and Amphibians. 3rd Edition. Houghton Mifflin Company, 2003.

Behler, John L., and F. Wayne King. The Audubon Society Field Guide to North American Reptiles and Amphibians. Alfred A. Knopf, 1992.

Powell, Robert., Joseph T. Collins, and Errol D. Hooper Jr. A Key to Amphibians and Reptiles of the Continental United States and Canada. The University Press of Kansas, 1998.

Bartlett, R. D. & Patricia P. Bartlett. Guide and Reference to the Turtles and Lizards of Western North America (North of Mexico) and Hawaii. University Press of Florida, 2009.

Carr, Archie. Handbook of Turtles: The Turtles of the United States, Canada, and Baja California. Cornell University Press, 1969.

Ernst, Carl H., Roger W. Barbour, & Jeffrey E. Lovich. Turtles of the United States and Canada. Smithsonian Institution 1994. (2nd Edition published 2009)

Lemm, Jeffrey. Field Guide to Amphibians and Reptiles of the San Diego Region (California Natural History Guides). University of California Press, 2006.

Conservation Status

The following status listings come from the Special Animals List and the Endangered and Threatened Animals List which are published by the California Department of Fish and Wildlife.

It is against the law to capture, move, possess, collect, or distribute this invasive species.
See: California Department of Fish and Game Restricted Species Regulations

Status Listing
U.S. Endangered Species Act (ESA) None
California Endangered Species Act (CESA) None
California Department of Fish and Wildlife None
Bureau of Land Management None
USDA Forest Service None


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