We are fast approaching the breeding season of the common snapping turtle. Pretty soon we will notice turtles in places we rarely see them, like our backyards and our flowerbeds. They invade our space to lay their eggs. Otherwise they rarely leave the water.
While we consider it trespassing, this noble reptile has roamed the earth for 40 million years. Sometimes a female will walk over a mile from her home to bury 20 to 50 eggs that look something like Ping-Pong balls. It can sometimes take as long as four months for them to hatch. Fifty-five to seventy days is more common. Temperature and moisture are the most critical factors for incubation success. High temperature speeds up the process and shortens development time. Low moisture contributes to fewer eggs hatching.
At low temperatures, mostly female turtles develop. Moderate temperatures favor males and higher temperatures make females more likely again. Eggs that encounter temperatures above 88 degrees Fahrenheit usually fail to hatch.
These shelled reptiles can weigh over 40 pounds and live for 50 years. They usually don’t, because they are slow and easily caught on land by many predators including humans. They also succumb to vehicles during their reproductive trek. On land they are very defensive and will bite if given the chance. Their powerful jaws can be lethal to anything that gets in the way.
In water they are much more docile and at home. They are largely nocturnal. I’ve lost many a fishing lure to them during the evening. That’s the best time to set hooks to catch them. During the day they are most often seen basking on a log or other structure, but they rarely pester fishermen.
Much folklore surrounds the snapping turtle. My father-in-law had many stories. He’d say that once a turtle bit something its jaws wouldn’t let go until it thundered. He ate many a meal of turtles and greens. I’ll never forget his description of the culinary intricacies of the snapping turtle.
He’d speak of their having meat of seven different flavors. I was skeptical, but I helped him dress a few and found they do have several different colors and textures of meat. You can easily tell that by sight and feel.
Of course many animals are somewhat like that. Texture and color of chicken meat varies greatly depending on its location. Obviously there are regions of white and dark meat, which taste slightly different, and the texture of drumstick flesh is not the same as that from the thigh or the back. Furthermore, white meat from the wings has different texture and fat content than that on the breast, but back to the turtle.
I’ve heard that turtle tastes like rabbit, chicken, bear, frog legs, lobster, pork, and fish. It’s all pretty fishy to me, although texture varies a lot. Some of the meat is stringy and some is soft, but it all is greasy with fishy overtones. I apologize to my father-in-law, God rest his soul, but I’ve never much cared for turtle and I eat just about anything.
Perhaps it’s just as well. Any animal that’s been around for 40 million years has earned its right to be left alone. I’ll be extra careful driving home this spring.
Ted Manzer teaches agriculture at Northeastern High School.