Snapping turtle nest - hatched

I’m housesitting for my parents this week, while they cavort about southern Pennsylvania. I’m here primarily to look after the horses, which are a little like dogs in that they require daily care, but are a lot harder to leave with a friend or take to a boarding kennel. My mom brings hers inside at night, into a hoop-style greenhouse that’s been converted into a stable. The original “floor” of the greenhouse is sand, though mats have been put down in the stalls.

First thing after I get up, before I even sit down with my own breakfast (because I tend to dawdle over breakfast, browsing the ‘net), I go out to put the horses out. Clearly I’m in a bit of an early-morning haze still, as I didn’t immediately notice the above in the floor; I’d already passed by it once before seeing it. My first thought was oh, raccoons found a turtle nest, what a shame. My second thought was hey, isn’t it neat that a turtle laid her eggs in here – certainly a great location.

Snapping turtle nest - hatched

And my third thought was, wait a minute… something’s not quite right for a raccoon predation. The hole’s too small for what I’d expect. And there’re no obvious claw marks. Plus the eggshells don’t look quite right.

And then I spotted this guy:

Baby snapping turtle

Sitting in the grass shoots right beside the path I’d come in along. How the heck had I missed it? No wonder the hole didn’t look right for a raccoon – the baby turtles had actually hatched!

Baby snapping turtle tracks

I looked around: tracks everywhere, criss-crossing back and forth over the soft sand. Look closely and you can see the footprints on either side of the central tail line. I started paying more attention, and then I noticed another baby turtle, and then a third.

Baby snapping turtles

They seemed to have hatched in the middle of the night, and had had some time to make it up and down the stable corridor. Most probably, if everything had gone according to plan, the baby turtles would be long gone by the time I got there in the morning, and all I would’ve found would be the empty nest. But the greenhouse hoops are affixed to a wooden frame, which created a four-inch (10cm) tall barrier that stopped the turtlets up short. I don’t know if mama turtle came in over this wooden ledge – it wouldn’t’ve been much of an impediment for her size and strength – or if she came through one of the two doors at the ends, which I’d had closed and locked for the night. Either way, the baby turtles weren’t going anywhere.

Baby snapping turtle

I dashed back to the house to get my camera. They were especially obliging. Nobody was moving about anymore – exhausted from crawling all night? Or just by nature more sleepy during the day? Although I wouldn’t go anywhere near the business end of an adult snapping turtle (and I’d even approach the back end with caution, they’ve got incredible reach with that long neck), the jaws on these little babies were so tiny there wasn’t any threat even if they did try to bite.

As it was, they were very quiet and non-aggressive, very much unlike more mature individuals I’ve encountered at roadsides. When I picked them up they pulled their heads in and wrapped their tail about their feet. After a few moments, this one seemed relaxed enough to stick its head out again.

Baby snapping turtle

I don’t know if it’s possible to sex baby snapping turtles at this young age, and I didn’t try looking. I do know, however, that the sex of turtles is determined by the incubation temperature. Very high (over 30°C/86°F) or low (under 20°C/68°F) average temperatures result in almost exclusively females, while intermediate ranges produce males. At least four hours a day is required at the max temperature. Interestingly, because eggs aren’t all buried at the same depth, temperature within a nest can be stratified, with eggs at the top being considerably warmer than those at the bottom, resulting in mixed-sex nests.

Baby snapping turtle

This nest didn’t look very deep, and considering that it was in a greenhouse where the temperature escalates in the mid-summer sun, my suspicion is that they were all females. Females of many turtle species will return to the place where they hatched once they’re finally old enough to mate themselves. Wouldn’t it be neat to have them come back? Of course, something would have to be done about that wooden ledge.

Baby snapping turtle

This individual seemed to have had a run-in with something. A sibling? A mouse? It was missing its tail, the remaining stump a little bloody, although the rest of it seemed okay. However, whenever it got flipped over (as it was when I found it) it was unable to right itself. Snapping turtles have very long tails, and clearly they play an important part in turning over. I wonder if they’re used for stability in walking or as a rudder in the water – either way, almost certainly the handicap means this baby will be among the early mortalities. (The expression on her face clearly says, “Well? Don’t just sit there snapping photos, help me up!”)

Baby snapping turtles

I couldn’t let the horses out while there were baby turtles in the aisle (how often does that sentence get said?), so I grabbed a bucket and started collecting them up. I spent about fifteen minutes going up and down the aisle, checking in the weeds growing at the edges, amongst the loose hay, in all the corners, even peeked in the stalls to see if any might have slipped under the door (didn’t look like it). I gathered a total of 20 by the time I felt I’d found them all.

Meanwhile, the horses were getting impatient. What the heck was taking so long? They wanted out! They’d whicker at me in annoyance: Mother never keeps us waiting. When the turtles were out of harm’s way I finished with the horses, then did one last sweep of the aisle before walking the bucket down to the river.

Baby snapping turtles

I wasn’t sure where the best place to release them was. In the wet meadow? By the pond? Down by the river? I finally opted for the river because it was the easiest to access from where I was, plus I figured that the sandy banks were probably closer to a normal nesting location by which the turtlets could orient themselves. I tipped the bucket over to let them leave it on their own.

Baby snapping turtles

They hurried out, fanning out from the bucket but all invariably heading toward the water.

Baby snapping turtle

They were a bit apprehensive about me standing and watching, but a couple of the braver turtlets moved purposefully forward anyway. They were so light that the muddy bank edge that sucked at my shoes with wet gloppy noises was of no consequence to them.

Baby snapping turtle

Two reached the water while I stood and watched. I was a bit surprised to see that the surface tension was strong enough to keep them buoyed; I’m not sure if this was due to the extra sand on their shells, or if they’re normally just very light. I popped these two under the water to break the tension, and they paddled about – one came back to the shore and stuck its nose out, while the other swam away and out of sight.

I left the rest of them; at the rate they were going, put off by my presence as they were, it would take them a while to reach the water or wherever they wanted to go, and I had work to get back to. Turtlet survival is pretty low through their first year, so probably most of these little ones won’t make it anyway, but I felt they would be reasonably safe where I left them for as long as it took for them to reach the water, anyway. Maybe, in a few years, one or two will return.

Author: Seabrooke

Author of Peterson Field Guide to Moths. Writer of action/thriller SF/F YA. Story junkie. Nature nut. Tea addict. Staffperson to five fourleggeds. Finding happiness in the little things. Twitter: @SeabrookeN / @SeabrookeLeckie

122 thoughts on “Turtlets”

  1. I loved your story today. Accompanied by such interesting photos of the little devils, I was very much entertained. Whenever I saw them all in the bottom of the bucket and read that you’d found 20 in all, I was so amazed. They were pretty lucky you discovered them before you let the horses out! Thanks for sharing. ~karen

  2. Thank you for this gift of a story…I was feeling pretty bleak and worn out this morning, then sat down to lunch and read your essay…what a lift I received! Thank you for the good that you do in this world, helping people appreciate the wonderful world in which we live. I’m going out for a walk.

  3. It’s a wonderful series of photos! What long tails! The swimming turtlet gave me a big smile. . . freedom! Thanks for giving them a good start and sharing with us!

  4. What a fascinating story! Thanks for sharing. I love the temperature dependant sex development. I did not know that! Great pics.

  5. Oh, they are so darling! For a brief minute (well, maybe a second) I thought ‘Wouldn’t a turtle make a great pet’. But of course that’s just the influence of the baby cuteness survival gene… which of course has no effect on racoons and other predators. I hope most of the little ones make it to adulthood and one of the females comes back to lay her eggs here!

  6. Beautiful story about the turtlets. A great find, beautiful photos, so well-written. Hats off!
    BTW….We should meet online. Although I’m a generation older than you, we have tons in common, including a Zoo degree from the same alma mater. Except that I’m (sadly) stuck in the Big Smoke, while you, you lucky lady, have created what appears to be the most marvellous life for yourself in the country. Good on you!
    Yours, Margaret

    1. Hooray for UoG! A beautiful, nature-friendly campus. I swung by your blog – it’s beautiful! I’ve been through Ashbridge’s a few times, but my “backyard” when I was in the city was the Leslie St Spit. I worked/volunteered at the bird research station and by the end of five years knew the place practically like the back of my hand. You’re never *really* stuck when there are such places in the city for nature-lovers to escape to!

  7. What a wonderful, joyful gift! Thank you for sharing the story and the lovely photos. I am particularly fond of turtles and this post has put a happy smile on my face.

    I hope the turtles do return and offer your parents the same joyful morning surprise one day.

  8. TWENTY?? Amazing. And so observant of you to note the tracks and the hole (not dug out). Like you, I’d have seen the shells and thought, Oh, dang, a coon got ’em. You’ve taught us all a good lesson here. Look, then look more closely, and then more closely still.

    I also appreciate your relative detachment about the injured turtlet. Not all of them were born to live. But those who understand and can accept that are few.

    I’m just so impressed you found all twenty. Not surprised, impressed.

    Thank you for a wonderful post.


    1. Thanks, Julie! When I discovered them I was surprised there were so many. I’d thought a female snapper was only supposed to lay 6-8 eggs per nest, but clearly I’d been misremembering – when I looked it up later, after returning inside, the average range is actually 20-40 and can be much higher (where do they put them all before they’re laid?). Fortunately, finding all the babies was made easier by the limited space they had to crawl around in – blocked on one side by horse stalls, and on the other by the hoophouse framing.

  9. What a wonderful morning find! Great pix. I especially like that you took the photo before ‘righting’ the poor little lady(?). “Help a sister out of a pickle, k?!” And you did just that-for all of them. Thanks for sharing this with all of us.

  10. Am a turtle lover, so was very excited at the photos. :) Used to raise them when I was a kid. Then I met a REAL snapping turtle when I lived in Jersey. Those babies are the size of CAR TIRES! No kidding!

    Hard to believe they grow from such tiny little things. Love the photos. (I’m not just a turtle lover. I’m a Canon lover too!)

  11. What a fantastic experience! I love turtles but have never seen or handled babies – although looking at your photos, I feel like I have. I am also a nature lover and photographer, and am going to add your blog to my blogroll right away so I can keep up with what you’re doing…

  12. they are so cute! snapping turtles are awesome. did you put the one with the bitten off tail in the bucket anyways? or at least put him right side up? poor little guy:^/

  13. Wow, what a great story! This post I can really relate to:

    Two or three summer ago I went out to help a science professor collect data on the endangered Diamondback Terrapin turtles. We looked for mother terrapins, dug up or protected her nest, scooped up any terrapins we found so we could write an info sheet, and so on. I was never out for hatching season, only for laying season. But it was so much fun working with turtles, one of my favorite creatures out there.

    You took some amazing photos! It must have been so much fun to help those little guys to safety! Congrats on getting Freshly Pressed!

  14. The miracle of new life is always a joy to behold! Thank you for reminding us of that and for reminding us that there are tiny miracles all around if we just bother to look.

  15. What a wonderful turtle story! I enjoyed reading this before breakfast this morning. It made me smile :)

    It’s a good thing you were alert and had a keen eye! ~ and you went after your camera so you could share this amazing story with us all, Thankyou!

  16. I discovered your blog about a year ago. I think it’s the best nature blog out in the cyber world. I actually have it bookmarked!

    Love the turtles. Great photos. Keep up the good work!


  17. Awesome job!! It feels good to know that the world still have kind hearted people like you.Must took you some time to find all 20 of them-I admire ur patience.Now lets just pray for the safety of those lil ones..

  18. Oh too sweet! Look at their sandy little eyes and the way he strains to hold his head above the water. I just want to cuddle up with one.

  19. I love your story. I also wouldn’t mess with a mama snapping turtle, either, but those babies are adorable, and I am glad you moved them to safety. (I picked up a box turtle from the side of the tollway recently, so I am especially all about the turtles.) The pictures are fabulous, by the way.

  20. They are positively adorable! I feel bad for the one that lost her tail. It’s so sad to think these little cuties might not live another year, but I guess such is life. I hope one or two of them do come back when they’re old enough! That would be a fantastic surprise.

    Thanks for the post!

  21. I love turtles! Just before we moved from Ohio to Oregon, one of my sons found a fairly new turtle which I had mowed over (safely) without noticing it. Short story-we kept it as a pet for several years. “Hank” was his/her name, by the way!

  22. Great. To watch the turtlets hatched in the nature is really amazing. I only watch them hatched through the movie, and the latest was Sammy’s Adventure 3D ;) Watched it with my niece and nephews, its a new experience for them. They like it. Thanks for sharing these wonderful photos in scene. Its really great!

  23. What a great post!!!

    I’m a fellow Ontario nature fan (now living in suburban NY) where we love all the nature around us. Yesterday a huge turkey buzzard landed on our 6th floor terrace railing…

  24. Thank you, everybody, for your kind words and congratulations! I was surprised and delighted to discover that the WordPress crew had picked the post up for Freshly Pressed.

  25. I found little turtles when I was fishing and I was just a kid, and they were just adorable. Those baby turtles were box turtles, but they are so cute and definitely don’t act in any way aggressive.

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  27. Your daily triumphs are always something to behold — moments to treasure as though they were my own. :-)

    Typically, the contour (be it concave or convex) of the plastron denotes a snapper’s gender. Whether this guideline applies to newborn chelydrids, I haven’t a clue.

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