A turtle by any other name…   Leave a comment

Did you know that the common snapping turtle has another name? It is also known as the mossy back turtle. The reason for this is that algae sometimes grows on the snapping turtle’s shell, so it looks like it has a soft and silky “mossy” back.


Thick green algae growing on the shell of some snapping turtles led to the name “mossy back”. The algae looks particularly bright and “furry” when seen underwater. (Photo: Christina Davy)

“Mossy back turtle” seems a much nicer (and less scary) name than snapping turtle. I think if this turtle had been introduced to me this way at our first meeting, I would have noticed amazing details that I didn’t notice until later. The “snap” is distracting, in name and in person. A lot of people don’t like the snapping turtle as much as other turtles, but I wonder if that would be different if people were introduced to it by its other name.

Snapping turtles got their name because they can “snap” at you a lot. But generally they only do this in defense when they are on land. They are just trying to scare us away so they can safely continue their journeys to lay eggs or get back to the water.

painted-snapper plastra

Lower shell or “plastron” of a Painted Turtle (left) and a Snapping Turtle (right). Notice that the Painted Turtle can pull so tightly into its shell that no part of its legs, head or tail are visible, while the Snapping Turtle is not protected at all by its plastron. (Photo: Christina Davy)

Unlike other turtles, snapping turtles do not have a shell that covers their entire tummy. This shell on the tummy of a turtle is called the plastron. So if a coyote or a racoon were to flip a snapping turtle upside down, the turtle would not be able to protect itself by hiding under its plastron. Its best defense is to appear very ferocious and scare away predators (including we humans) so they do not try to flip it upside down.

Even as long ago as 1784, a doctor named John Ferdinand Smyth Stuart demonstrated typical prejudice against the snapping turtle in North America. He noted that they “bite very fiercely” when angered and that they do not let go easily when they do bite. Stuart contrasted the snapping turtle with other turtles of North America, which he judged to be“extremely beautiful,” “adorned with all the elegance of the brightest colouring , and the most fanciful engravings, or lines in regular and exact uniformity: this kind [of turtle] is perfectly inoffensive and harmless.”

Speaking from my experience working in the field, I can tell you that a beautifully marked painted turtle, even a cute little baby one, may bite you (hard) if given the chance. Being handled is a stressful experience for wild animals, and biting is a defense mechanism that many animals have – even the “cute” ones. When conservationists work with wild turtles, they are always very gentle and careful. But turtles can feel threatened when they are caught and handled. Try to imagine what it would feel like if you were a turtle and a kind stranger twenty-times your size lifted you up out of your home! If that was me, I’d be scared!

Just because we find something beautiful does not mean it is harmless. Likewise, just because we think something is scary or fierce does not mean it can’t also be beautiful and amazing. Nature can (and usually does) do more than two things at once!

I would like to have had the chance to ask John Stuart in person why he separated the snapping turtle from all the other turtles that he thinks are “extremely beautiful.” But I think many people today think similarly. Unlike the pretty patterns of the painted turtle or the cute spots of the spotted turtle, the snapping turtle is often covered in algae. Even when the shell is clean, it is not decorated with the same brilliant colours and patterns that we find on some other turtles. The snapping turtle also grows a lot bigger than the turtles that John Stuart liked. And the snapping turtle does demonstrate its “snap” much more often than other turtles, particularly because it does not have the ability to hide in its shell like many other turtles.


Adult male Snapping Turtle (Chelydra serpentina),otherwise known as the “mossy back”, encountered on the shore of Lake Erie. (Photo: Leif Einarson)

But pay close attention to the details the next time you are at a zoo and get a chance to see a snapping turtle up close with some safety glass between you to help you both feel more safe and comfortable. Take a close look at its eyes! Snapping turtles have BEAUTIFUL eyes with very complex, unique patterns in them. No other turtles have eyes quite like the eyes of a snapping turtle. Maybe beauty is in the eye of the beheld!

— Leif Einarson


Small female Snapping Turtle (Chelydra serpentina) gazing with her beautiful eyes at the camera and showing off an impressive, emerald-coloured patch of algae (“moss”) on her shell. (Photo: Leif Einarson)


Posted January 14, 2013 by thinkingturtles in Uncategorized

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