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Wednesday, September 25, 2013

Snapping Turtle Hatchlings

The exposed Snapping Turtle nest.

Unexpected discoveries are to be expected when spending time in nature.  You go out looking for one thing and find another.  When I was checking a crayfish trap (which turned out to be empty) just downstream from NBNC last week, I was thrilled to discover a nest of Snapping Turtles in the process of being born.

I first noticed some very fresh looking egg shells at the base of a large dirt pile.  I could tell they were fresh because the leathery shells had not yet curled up as they do when they begin to dry out.  At the top of the dirt pile was a cave-like opening about the size of a slice of bread, inside which eggs and baby turtles were piled and partially buried.  Some had already hatched, others were hatching, and some were still sealed in the ping pong ball sized eggs.  

One of the Snapping Turtles just beginning to emerge.
Hatchling Snapping Turtles are extremely vulnerable and can become a bite-sized snack for a slew of creatures such as raccoons, otters, herons, kingfishers, crows, bullfrogs, bass, snakes, and even other turtles.  Under natural conditions, few nestlings will survive to adulthood, but these conditions were far from natural.  The nest was completely exposed, elevated above the ground on top of the mound of soil, open and exposed to the baseball diamond.  Crows frequent this area, searching for scraps left by people, and would gobble up baby turtles in an instant.  So I decided to excavate the nest and watch over the turtles until they had all hatched.
A hatchling almost out of its shell.
Over the next few days, the baby turtles emerged from their eggs.  They pried through the leathery shells using their egg tooth (the sharp, white tip of their beak), which will disappear as they grow.  Even with my help, most of these turtles will likely become prey for other creatures.  Very few hatchlings make it to adulthood, but those that do have few natural predators and can live for decades.  I wished them luck as I released them into the beaver pond near NBNC.  Hopefully in ten years I will see one of them as an adult, enjoying life along the North Branch of the Winooski River. 

Ready for release at the beaver pond.

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