The Common Snapping Turtle is an inexpensive, spunky species that, with the right care and husbandry, can be a great addition to your home.
These freshwater turtles are common throughout most of North America and is the official reptile of New York state.
In the wild, they use their powerful jaws and long necks (that they can stretch over 12 inches) to catch a wide variety of prey. Their dinosaur-like appearance, interesting traits (e.g. breathing underwater) and ability to thrive in captivity make them beloved by many hobbyists.
However, for beginners, it can be difficult to care for such a large, temperamental aquatic turtle who requires an aqua-terrarium.
If these prehistoric reptiles have caught your attention, read on to learn how to make caring for the Snapping Turtle easy…
What Is A Snapping Turtle?
The Common species is the only Snapping Turtle of the genus Chelydra family found in North America. They can be found anywhere from southern Canada to the tip of Florida, covering the eastern two-thirds of the continent.
They are loved by herpetologists for their prehistoric appearance. Their shell can range from 8 to 18 inches in length, with males tending to be larger.
Their shell is often tan, dark brown, or black and accumulates loads of algae and mud as they age. Snapping Turtles also have ridged tails nearly the length of the shell.
These pets have some very interesting abilities, too:
- Depending on their size, they have a bite force of 45 to 150 pounds per square inch. This is just less than the human average of 162 pounds.
- They got their name “serpentina,” meaning “snake-like,” because they can stretch their neck over two-thirds the length of their shell.
Natural omnivores, they eat a variety of small animals including: invertebrates, fish, carrion, and even other turtles.
The spunky attitude, large size, and unique appearance make them a common first turtle. However, they can be high maintenance for many beginners:
- They require a large aquarium or pond enclosure.
- They need specific heating and lighting arrangements.
- Because of their long necks and aggressive temperament, they require a unique approach to safely handle.
However, with the right care and husbandry, because they are hardy and often live up to 40 years old, they can make a great addition to your home for many years!
|Scientific Name||Chelydra serpentina, C. rossignonii, C. acutirostris|
|Size||8 to 18 inch shell length, 10 to 35 pounds|
|Diet||Variety of worms, insects, small animals, and vegetables|
|Tank Size||120 gallon|
|Humidity & Temperature||75°F-80°F water temperature|
80°F-86°F ambient air temperature
90°F basking spot
|Popular Alternatives||Alligator Snapping Turtle, Mata Mata Turtle, Softshell Turtle|
Snapping Turtle Care Sheet
This care guide will be focused on C. serpentina, the North American Common species.
Snapping Turtles are found in aquatic ecosystems all over the eastern portion of North America.
Their ability to withstand winter temperatures allows them to be successful across this wide geography.
They like shallow areas of rivers, streams, and lakes with muddy, plant-covered bottoms that allow them to hide.
This turtle enjoys surfacing to bask, but rarely leaves the water, normally only coming onto land to lay eggs during the breeding season.
Snapping Turtle Tank Requirements and Set Up
Your turtle will grow large. They require a large amount of space.
While a hatchling can live in as little as a 10-gallon aquarium, a 120-gallon turtle tank is the minimum size required to keep an adult.
Glass terrariums, large plastic tubs, plastic fish ponds, and even small children’s pools are appropriate enclosures.
The top of the enclosure should be secured with a sturdy wire top to prevent escape and withstand the heating and lighting fixtures.
Water should be as deep as the turtle’s shell is long with substrate, sticks, and clutter along the bottom. The more clutter, the safer your turtle is going to feel when trying to hide. Your pet will also need access to a heated basking area outside of the water (more on this below).
Due to the aquatic nature of these turtles, it is also necessary to use treated, chlorine-free water for optimum health. If desired, aquarium salt can be added in small amounts to create brackish water.
This species prefers to be in the water, but they may still bask occasionally. For this reason, specific lighting arrangements are required.
An infrared basking light over their docking area is best.
Depending on the height of the basking area, the wattage of the bulb may need to be adjusted, but typically a basking spot of 90°F can be achieved with a 75-100 watt bulb.
Turtles follow a routine cycle of day and night. This should be mimicked with 12-hour cycles in captivity. This can be managed using a long UVB bulb.
A high-quality UVB bulb is necessary to provide lighting cycles, stimulate Vitamin D production and prevent illnesses such as Metabolic Bone Disease. UVB bulbs should be replaced every 6-12 months to ensure optimum light output.
While they are able to withstand cold temperatures when overwintering in the wild, they do need a specific temperature range in captivity.
The water in their aquarium should be kept at 78-80°F for hatchlings and 75-78°F for adults.
This temperature can be achieved with underwater heaters. It may be necessary to add PVC tubes around submersible heaters to prevent burns.
A thermometer should be placed near the heater and another at the opposite end of the tank to ensure the temperature gradients don’t move outside the recommended range. This can be helped using thermostats to monitor the temperature digitally as well.
In addition to maintaining a specific water temperature, ambient air temperatures above the water must be maintained at 80-86°F. This can be achieved through a 50 to 75-watt infrared bulb or ceramic heater. A thermometer should be used to ensure temperatures remain constant and a thermostat can be used to maintain the desired temperature.
Keeping both water and ambient air temperatures consistent is important in maintaining 70-80% humidity above the water.
This turtle can live without substrate. However, they will likely experience less environmental stress when given a substrate with a combination of plants and driftwood. Make sure the driftwood can’t be eaten or injure your pet and provide plenty of hiding spots.
Rock or wooden décor should be removed, scrubbed, and sanitized every 2-4 weeks, depending on your tank filtration system.
Alternative substrates can be large rocks or a sand or mud-like bottom.
Rock bottoms should not be small enough to be swallowed, but also not have any large enough to trap your turtle. One recommendation is to use a nontoxic epoxy aquarium sealant to glue together several rocks, making them even harder to move.
Using a mud or sand bottom can make maintaining water quality difficult and pose a potential hazard for ingestion, and therefore is typically avoided.
As a general rule, their tank should be cleaned every 2-4 weeks. All substrate and décor should be removed, scrubbed, and dipped in a 10% bleach bath to avoid bacterial and algal growth.
30% water changes should be done every 1-2 weeks to maintain water quality. Always use non-chlorinated, treated water.
If you do decide to use a sandy or mud bottom, make sure to change it every 2-4 weeks to prevent bacterial growth.
|Tank Type||120-gallon aqua-terrarium|
|Lighting||UVB bulb, 50-75 watt light bulb|
|Best Substrate||Combination of large rocks, driftwood pieces, and plants|
What To Feed A Snapping Turtle
Snapping turtles are opportunistic omnivores, meaning that they will eat anything that fits in their strong beak.
In the wild, this means their diet typically consists of:
- Aquatic insects
- Aquatic plants
- Small mammals, amphibians, and reptiles (including other turtles!)
To ensure your turtle is eating an appropriate amount, you should plan to feed your turtle twice daily when they’re under 6 months old, and once every other day for turtles older than 6 months.
They are known to eat nearly every day as juveniles and several times a week as adults:
|Under 6 months||Twice daily|
|Under 2 years||Every day|
|Over 2 years||Three times a week|
When feeding, it is recommended that you offer as much food as your turtle can consume in a 10 to 15-minute period. After 15 minutes, promptly remove the food to prevent obesity and water quality issues.
Their health is best maintained through a wide variety of foods.
Hatchlings thrive on a mostly protein diet consisting of redworms, small fish, and nutrient pellets.
Adults should have a diet of approximately 70-75% protein and 25-30% plant matter. Adults can be fed the occasional small mouse, fish, worms, snails, and pellets.
Water lettuce, water hyacinth, duck weed, and leafy greens should be staple vegetables, though others like pears, grapes, apples, cantaloupe, blackberries, strawberries, blueberries, and carrots can be fed as a treat.
In addition to a natural food variety, many keepers supplement with pellets that contain nutrients that may not be easily achieved through natural feeding alone.
All food should be cut into small pieces for your turtle. If you choose not to include nutritious pellets, these pieces should be dusted with a multivitamin and calcium supplement.
Lastly, being aquatic turtles, they need clean, fresh or brackish water. They will drink water as they desire during swimming.
How To Keep Them Healthy
The best way to keep a happy, healthy pet is to maintain consistent and correct husbandry. With proper care, in captivity these turtles can live an average for 30-40 years. The oldest in captivity lived to be 47.
Unfortunately, various issues with husbandry can lead to a shorter lifespan and health conditions:
- Vitamin A deficiency
- Metabolic bone disease
- Aural abscesses
- Eye infections
- Internal parasites
- Respiratory infections
- Egg retention
Vitamin A deficiency and Metabolic bone disease are usually caused by a lack of calcium or multivitamins in their diet or a lack of UVB light. These issues can be both prevented and solved with a balanced diet of vitamin A-rich vegetables, vitamin and calcium supplements, and proper lighting.
Many of these issues can be prevented. However, in the event your turtle becomes ill, most issues must be treated by a veterinarian. Here are some symptoms you should look out for:
|Signs They Are Healthy||Sickness Symptoms|
|Healthy appetite||Lack of appetite and lethargy|
|Showing ambush hunting behaviors||Unusual skin texture or appearance|
|Exploring the enclosure and expressing natural burrowing behaviors||Swollen eyelids or ears, sometimes with discharge from mouth|
In the wild, Snapping Turtles tend to be solitary individuals that spend most of their time in the water waiting to ambush their prey. Social interaction is rare and typically only involves fighting between males, so cohabitation should be avoided with this species.
On land the temperament of these turtles changes drastically from fleeing, docile creature to angry monsters.
When out of the water, they show intense aggression and may hiss, snap at, or even attack a perceived threat.
Snapping Turtles prefer to burrow down and lay on the bottom of their enclosure between surface visits as an ambush behavior. Removing their ability to have anywhere to hide can stop this behavior entirely.
Typically, these turtles have the same temperament in captivity as in the wild.
They are much calmer and more likely to avoid you in the water, but once removed, they can become overly aggressive. In this case, it is necessary to practice proper handling.
While this species is capable of hibernation, not all of them do. They have an extremely high cold tolerance and often remain active, even underneath sheets of ice.
In the northern parts of America, these turtles do hibernate.
They will bury themselves in the muddy bottom of a lake or river and expose their heads in the water. For up to six months, these turtles can remain buried, breathing only through membranous gas exchanges.
Mating is typically initiated by visual cues.
The turtles will face one another and display various leg movements to signal their intent.
In captivity, many of these behaviors are retained. Females may root around their dry dock during laying season, but otherwise rarely leave the water.
They have strong, sharp beaks and long necks, so special handling skills are needed for this species.
The Snapping Turtle is known to be aggressive as adults, especiallyf when taken out of water. Like with some reptiles, handling should be avoided whenever possible.
To safely pick up your turtle, slide your hands beneath the carapace above the back legs with your thumbs on top of the shell for support.
Use their shell to lift them up. A common mistake beginners make is holding their turtle by the tail, but this can lead to permanent damage to the spine.
Snapping Turtle Appearance
This species is known for their intimidating, prehistoric appearance.
Snapping Turtles have rough, olive-yellow skin with a darker head.
Their neck can be up to two-thirds the length of their shell, bearing a sharp bony beak. Their shells tend to be tan, brown, or black and covered in algae and become smoother as they age.
They also have ridged tails nearly as long as their shell and webbed feet.
Snapping turtles are sexually dimorphic, meaning that there are visual differences between males and females.
Adult males tend to have thick, long tails with their vents further down the tail.
Females, however, tend to have shorter tails and a vent closer to their body. Females also tend to be smaller, but this is not always a reliable way to sex them.
Snapping Turtle Size
Hatchlings tend to be similarly sized regardless of sex. They can be 2.5-4 inches long and weigh just a few ounces.
By 5 years old, most males have reached sexual maturity and should measure approximately 6 inches long.
Females may be up to 12 years old before they reach sexual maturity.
By 12-15 years growth slows, and your turtle will slowly reach their maximum size of between 8-18 inches and 10-35 pounds.
Wild Snapping Turtles tend to have tan, brown, or black shells. However, this shell tends to get covered by mud and algae over time.
Their skin is an olive-yellow color over most of their body, except their heads, which tend to be darker.
Captive bred Snapping Turtles can have more variety in color. They can be:
- Light brown (cinnamon)
- Hypomelanistic or leucistic
Baby Snapping Turtles
Babies are typically defined as being less than 6 months in age and have very similar care requirements to adults.
One difference is their tank size should be much smaller to accommodate the shallow water (10 or 20-gallons is best).
Their water temperature should be adjusted warmer to approximately 78°F-80°F.
They should eat mostly small invertebrates and fish proteins, like redworms and small guppies and should be fed twice a day, for 10-15 minutes.
How Much Does A Snapping Turtle Cost?
They can be purchased at prices ranging from $25 for babies to $150 for adults. They can be found in pet stores or ordered online, though prices can be higher from private sellers.
It is important to research your turtle’s breeder or distributor to avoid wild-caught turtles.
Wild-caught turtles often have illnesses and are less likely to adapt quickly to captivity.
Breeding Snapping Turtles
Common snapping turtles sexual maturity is directly related to their size.
At approximately 6 inches long, they are ready to mate. Mating season is typically between April and May with egg laying occurring in Late May and June.
Courtship is fairly simple, consisting of two potential partners facing one another and moving their heads and front legs to indicate their desire.
The larger the female, the more eggs she will produce. Most females will produce around 24 eggs in a clutch, but some nests have had up to 100 eggs.
They prefer to lay their eggs in rotten vegetation, sand, sawdust piles, and similar substrates before returning to the water.
Hatchlings typically spend around 93 days in their nest before either emerging in the fall or entering their first hibernation, depending on their location.
Care Guide Summary
|They have a long lifespan||They grow large very quickly|
|They are hardy and rarely get sick with correct care and husbandry||They tend to have an aggressive temperament on land|
|They are unique in appearance when compared to many other turtles||They require a fully aquatic enclosure|
Snapping turtles have a moderately difficult care regimen due to their diet variety, large size, aquatic nature, and aggression.
However, they are extremely interesting and entertaining, making them great pets for experienced keepers.
With correct husbandry practices, these turtles can thrive and live up to 30-40 years old.
Their temperament, though aggressive on land, is manageable in their enclosure, and a positive relationship can be built between a keeper and their turtle.
Other similar species of turtle with similar care requirements include the larger Alligator Snapping Turtle, Softshell Turtle, and smaller Red-Bellied Cooter.
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