You either love them, or they leave you cold. I'm talking about snappers, those brawny, brutish, Stegosaurus-tailed, algae-covered common turtles that haunt Adirondack ponds, lakes and rivers.
Someone who drives Moose Pond Road in Bloomingdale seems to hate snappers. A big female had hauled herself out of the Saranac River yesterday to lay eggs when someone went out of his or her way to leave the pavement, drive on private land (we're the owners) and crush the turtle as she was planting her embryonic offspring.
Tire tracks in the sand told the story. The victim had been run over more than once. When my young children and I came upon the scene, we felt sick. The female's neck was twisted in a final convulsion, her handsome shell was cracked in a dozen places, and crushed eggs lay strewn across the sand. Future turtles had been turned to yellow smears, stinking in the sun and buzzing with flies.
A snapping turtle crosses a road on May 14, 2007.
(Enterprise file photo — Lou Reuter)
Three of 38 baby snapping turtles emerge on Sept. 23, 2008 from a hole in the front lawn of St. Bernard’s School in Saranac Lake, where their mother laid them as eggs the previous spring. Teachers carried them in boxes across River Street to Lake Flower.
(Photo — Sheila Miller)
Why the brutal slaying? The kids and I had a talk.
We discussed the fact that there's more to this widely reviled reptile than meets the eye - for example, once I dissected a dead snapper I'd found. It was a monster, the upper shell, or carapace, more than a foot long and the stout, muscular legs armed with long sharp claws. In the turtle's stomach I found not ducklings or trout or baby beavers or the severed toes of human swimmers. No, as far as I could tell, all that was there were partially digested tree leaves.
That's right. In the belly of this much-feared predator I found nothing more than a salad.
As it turns out, snappers, which have surely been raising families in the Adirondacks for millions of years, enjoy a diet much like our own. They consume meat but like to accompany it with leafy matter and vegetables. The frequently heard claim that they prey on ducklings is true, but only to a slight extent. Ducks and snappers coexist everywhere you look. To think of snappers as baby killers is to deny them their marvelous complexity. Truth is, they're primarily scavengers. Much of what they eat is already dead when they eat it.
Snappers are the garbagemen and garbagewomen of Adirondack waters. Without them, and without other turtles that perform the same service, our ponds, lakes and rivers would be littered with the dead and decomposing. Sure, there's something creepy about their zombie-like taste for the dead. But hey, better to have zombies than not. Which pond would you rather swim in: one with lots of snapping turtles you'll rarely see and that will not bother you unless provoked, or one with corpses bobbing in it like a giant, stinking ice cream soda?
Proof that snappers have a gentle, almost sensitive side comes from their relationship with painted turtles. A 1997 study confirmed that snappers and painteds often hang out together, the smaller turtles ridding the larger of hangers-on such as leeches and algae and getting a feed in the bargain. Almost always, which is about the best that can be claimed for any creature, snappers prefer peace to aggression.
One of the most interesting facts about snappers, and there are many interesting facts, is the way they determine the proportion of girls and boys in a batch of offspring. Mama Snapper digs a hole in damp sand and lays her 10, 20, 30 or more eggs. If a raccoon, skunk, fox, mink or reptile enthusiast doesn't come along and dig them up, then the eggs in the upper part of the nest, the part warmed by sunshine, generally yield females. The cooler, lower-down eggs produce males.
Because I hear it so often, I want to get back to the charge of snappers being merciless duck eaters. Think of all those baby snappers. Ponder how many of them are devoured by crows, ravens, blue jays, herons and, yes, perhaps even a few ducks. No doubt the number of birds destroyed by snappers pales beside the number of snappers liquidated by birds.
Monsters of the deep and shallow? I don't think so. I've swum with snapping turtles all my life. Last time I looked, I still had all my fingers and toes.
Ed Kanze is a naturalist, author and guide who lives in Bloomingdale.