Wednesday, March 22, 2023


RVers, look out for butt-breathing, hard-biting, snapping turtles

My Pawpaw speared the chicken neck on a sharp stick about two feet long. He squatted down, asked his son if he was ready, and pushed the morsel toward the snapping turtle. The turtle shot his head out to grasp the chicken, exposing a good amount of his neck. That is the moment that my uncle swung the razor-sharp machete down, cleanly severing the turtle’s head. Therein lies the beginning of a good turtle soup, and my early encounter with the harsher side of nature meets human.

I know that this is an extreme way of presenting the common snapping turtle (Chelydra serpentina). Growing up on the Texas-Louisiana border along the Gulf Coast, we ate our share of wild foods. Actually, turtle farms in the U.S. export between 200,000 and 300,000 snapping turtles to East Asian markets annually. Even combined with low hatchling survival, road mortality, and habitat loss, the common snapping turtle population is stable.

Why the name “snapping” turtle?

Unlike most other turtles, the snapping turtle has a small underside (plastron). This limits how far it can pull in its tail, legs, neck, and head. Its strong jaw and large beak snap in defense.

The species reference serpentina stems from its “snake-like” tail and neck. It can easily extend its neck the length of its body, up to 19 inches. This makes it a formidable hunter and biter. If you happen upon one crossing the road, let it be. If you feel the need to help it along, there is a way to mitigate the chance of a bite or scratch. Here are some guidelines from Tufts Wildlife Clinic.

How hard can it bite?

The common snapping turtle has an average bite of 48.8 pound-force. (In comparison, the average bite of a human [molars area] is 112.4 pound-force.) That may not be enough force to bite off one’s finger, but it sure will be painful.

Where does it live?

Found only in North America, its natural range extends from Montana across to southeastern Canada and down south to Florida and stretching west across the Gulf Coast into Texas. It prefers an aquatic habitat, coming on land around dusk and dawn to hunt. Its favorite ambush tactic is to bury itself in the muddy shallow edge of its watery home. Since its nostrils are at the very tip of the nose, it breathes while being very well camouflaged.  As an omnivore, it will eat just about anything, including scavenging dead plants and animals.

Where does it go in winter?

A turtle’s body temperature tracks that of its environment. This makes the common snapping turtle incredibly cold-tolerant. When their aquatic habitat freezes over, the lower section does not. Hibernating snapping turtles do not breathe for extended periods of time. In their northern range, that can extend over six months. 

So, how does it breathe?

During hibernation, the snapping turtle buries itself in the muddy bottom of its habitat. It “breathes” by transferring oxygen from water as it passes over blood vessels in the mouth and throat, aka extra-pulmonary respiration. However, the more efficient method is butt breathing, aka cloacal respiration. 

Because the cloaca performs several functions including egg laying and waste elimination, it is extremely vascularized containing a myriad of blood vessels. Actually, it is not in a sense breathing as much as the transference of oxygen in and carbon dioxide out through the blood vessels.

For sources and more information on snapping turtles, please visit anytime.



3.5 6 votes
Article Rating
Subscribe to comments
Notify of

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

1 Comment
Inline Feedbacks
View all comments
Bob p
3 days ago

When I was 8 yrs old visiting my uncle’s farm he decided to give me something to do that would keep me out from under his feet. He share cropped my great grandpa’s farm and he had a pond where the cows drink from and also stand in in the hot summer to cool off. In the pond also resided many snapping turtles who would bite the cows teets on her udder causing bleeding and unable to be milked. My job was to lay on the side of the pond and shoot the turtles when they surfaced to breathe. Only their head sticks out of the water so it’s a small target, after about 2 hrs he came to check on me, I was using his .22 semi-automatic. After a few minutes he said boy you ain’t going to kill a turtle with just one shot, he took the rifle and the next turtle sticking his head up he fired 3 quick shots, then gave it back to me. I continued my 1 shot the rest of the day. The next morning as we were doing the chores we walked by the pond, there were 12 dead turtles with one hole through their head.

Sign up for the

RVtravel Newsletter

Sign up and receive 3 FREE RV Checklists: Set-Up, Take-Down and Packing List.