Big Turtle Ident
Try this again -- today I had a BIG black turtle on driveway. Shell more "flat" than domed. Tail seemed unusually long and had "spines" (like dinosaur spines). Head was somewhat withdrawn (not extended, but he sure was watching me). Hopefully pic is attached. He was traveling from my pond to the creek across the road. Any help you can give. Thank you. Jean Vess
Macomb County Michigan
Thank you for your question. The turtle in your photo is a snapping turtle, scientific name (Chelydra serpentina). This is one of our largest freshwater turtles. Females can reach a carapace (top shell) length of almost 14 inches and weigh up to approximately 22 pounds. Males are larger, and can weigh much more. The record weight for a wild-caught specimen is 75 pounds.
Snapping turtles are found from Nova Scotia west to southern Alberta, then south to New Mexico and back eastward to the Atlantic and Gulf Coast and peninsular Florida. They can be found in most permanent bodies of water, including mud-bottomed ponds, lakes and slow streams. Bodies of water with plentiful aquatic vegetation usually have good populations of this species. Although primarily aquatic, they often travel overland to move from one body of water to another or in search of a suitable nesting site.
They also have a varied diet, and will eat vegetation, fish, birds and mammals. They also scavenge dead animals.
Snapping turtles are known for their total lack of a sense of humor. Their long necks give them the ability to bite in a variety of directions. The only safe way to handle the smaller ones is to grab the base of their tail and lift them off the ground, making sure you keep the head pointed away from you at all times. You should not use this method to handle the heavier turtles as lifting them by the tail can result in injuries to the tail vertebrae and possibly spinal injuries. Heavier turtles should not be handled if at all possible.
Snapping turtles are often blamed for reducing the population of game fish and waterfowl, but studies have shown that their impact on game fish populations is generally insignificant and mammals that raid nests and large game fish have a much higher impact on waterfowl than turtles.
For more information on this species, go to the Michigan Dept. of Natural Resources Turtle web page at:
If you're interested in learning more about amphibians and reptiles of the Great Lakes Region, check out this field guide:
Harding, James H. and David A. Mifsud. (2017). Amphibians and Reptiles of the Great Lakes Region. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press.
Hope this answers your question, and thank you for contacting Ask an Expert.
Thanks for info. This turtle was SO big, with black, flat-ish and smooth-ish leather-looking shell, unlike others in same pond and in found pictures. Why the differences?
BTW: the pic was taken from the seat of my SUV - I was NOT getting out to take a pic. LOL
Snapping turtles can have some variation in the color of their carapace between individuals. The color can range from tan, brown, olive or black. Their carapace is also always somewhat flattened.
Here's a link to the Virginia Herpetological Society where you can see a snapping turtle with a blackish shell:
Hope this information helps, and thanks again for contacting Ask an Expert.