Snapping turtles are known for their prehistoric appearance and enormous size. They are very common in the wild, where they should be given plenty of space.
But did you know that you can keep one of these ancient creatures in your aquarium or pond? It isn’t easy, and you will need a lot of space with good filtration, but it is entirely possible with the right setup.
Keep reading to find out everything you need to know about snapping turtles, baby snapping turtles, and how to keep one of these monsters in your home aquarium or pond!
About snapping turtles
There are a few known species of snapping turtle, with some having gone extinct. One of the most abundant turtle species is the common snapping turtle (Chelydra serpentina), on which this article will focus.
These freshwater turtles have an expansive range across North America, covering most of the mid-western and eastern regions of the United States, with some habitats throughout southeastern Canada.
There, they can be found in a variety of ecosystems, including swamps, rivers, ponds, and lakes; some of these turtles can even be found in saltwater or brackish water conditions and are very adaptable to changing environments. They may sometimes be seen basking at the water’s surface, on a log, or on the shore, though this is rarer.
For the most part, snapping turtles stay buried in the substrate and use their long noses to reach up to the surface when it’s time to breathe. Interestingly, when their ponds freeze over during the winter months, these turtles use a unique breathing technique that allows them to go months without surfacing for air.
In short, these snapping turtles have adapted to extract oxygen from the water column, similar to fish, though not via gills. The turtle takes water into its oral cavity, exchanging gas through the mouth and throat.
These turtles can grow to massive sizes, reaching nearly 2 feet (61.0 cm) across, with the largest wild-caught one weighing in at 85 lbs (34 kg); captive-kept snapping turtles can grow to be even larger than that due to a steady diet and less exercise.
You should also note that snapping turtles can have a considerably long life, with some living 50 years or more!
In the wild, snapping turtles are at the top of the food chain. They feed on most animals available to them in their ecosystems, including small birds. However, they are pretty skittish and will usually leave larger predators, like humans, alone.
Male vs. female
Telling the difference between a male and a female snapping turtle can be difficult. In general, males are larger than females as adults.
Like other turtles, you will likely be able to tell if your turtle is a male or a female by looking at the tail. Females will have a shorter, skinnier tail while males will have a thicker, longer tail; females will also have the vent closer to the base of the tail.
Can snapping turtles be kept as pets?
While snapping turtles have successfully been kept as pets, it is not recommended for the average hobbyist. These turtles need ample space. After a certain point, it also becomes extremely difficult and dangerous to handle them.
However, snapping turtles can make great predators for outdoor ponds. They can help regulate fish populations and create a more natural and balanced ecosystem.
Chances are your outdoor pond already has a snapping turtle that traveled there on its own without your knowledge. If you happen to come across a damaged nest, you might find yourself wanting to help save the remaining eggs.
It is entirely possible to rehabilitate a baby snapper with the help of a center for wildlife and then release it back into your pond. We will talk more about rehabilitating snapping turtles later in this article.
Are baby snapping turtles dangerous?
Before talking about baby snapping turtles, we need to understand why adult snapping turtles are considered so dangerous.
Snapping turtles are named for their ability to snap their beak-like mouths physically and sonically. They can exert about 200 Newtons of force, which can easily cause injury to any stray fingers that might be in the way.
Though it hasn’t officially been reported yet, some larger species of snapping turtle are very capable of biting off fingers, especially those of small children. The main species you want to be most careful with is the alligator snapper (Macrochelys temminckii).
Even with correct handling, common snapping turtles can inflict injury. Not only do snapping turtles use their long necks for breathing, but they can also use them to bite at extended distances. This means that you might think you’re out of reach, but the turtle knows otherwise.
Though small, a baby common snapper can be dangerous, too. They usually do not like to be held and are fully capable of attacking in the same way that adults do, just with less power. Even newly-hatched ones can still take a small bite out of a palm.
Snapping turtles have extremely long and sharp claws on their webbed feet that can scratch the skin and invite infection, regardless of age.
Baby snapping turtle care
But what if you really want to raise a snapping turtle for your pond or large aquarium? Or what if you found a damaged nest and want to take care of the babies until they can be released back into the wild?
Raising snapping turtles is relatively easy. It’s the growing that gets difficult to keep up with.
What size aquarium do baby snapping turtles need?
Snapping turtles are slow growers, though they can grow rapidly under favorable conditions. Males won’t reach mature sizes until around five years old, with females taking upwards of 10 years to reach sexual maturity and lay their first clutch of eggs.
That said, it is best to provide as much space as possible at first and then transition the turtle into its permanent home. For a baby turtle, you should allow 10 gallons of tank capacity (37.9 L) for every inch (2.5 cm) of the turtle’s length. That translates to about three square feet of space.
For the first few years, a standard 40 gallon (151.4 L) breeder aquarium will give your turtle the space it needs to grow. As your snapping turtle grows, you will need about 150 gallons (567.8 L) of capacity for a female and up to 300 gallons (1135.6 L) for a male.
For this reason, many hobbyists choose to move them to their outdoor ponds as soon as they’re ready.
Snapping turtle tank setup
Although they are aquatic turtles, snapping turtles spend time in the water and on land. This means that their aquarium setup needs swimming and basking parts.
The swimming parts of the aquarium should not be deep. Remember, snapping turtles love to bury themselves in the substrate and stretch their nose towards the water surface. How much tank water you need will vary with the size of your turtle, but 6-7 inches (15.2-17.8 cm) is a good starting point.
This substrate should make the least mess possible. A good layer of silt capped by gravel is one of the best ways to accomplish this; mud might be tempting but will undoubtedly make a mess in your aquarium!
An extensive filtration system with biological, mechanical, and chemical filtration is needed to help with the mess. At least a 2-3 X turnover rate is recommended with regular fresh water changes. Ensure that your baby snapping turtle can swim away from the intake valve and that the current isn’t too strong.
Your snapping turtle should have access to several land areas throughout the tank. This can include logs for basking and built-up formations of river rocks where the turtle can dry off completely. For the most part, snapping turtles only bask in shallow water, but sometimes they like to get out of the water, too!
This basking area should have a UVA light as a heat lamp and a UVB lamp (<10%) to help maintain shell health; snapping turtles do not necessarily need a UVB light as they get most of what they need from their diet, though an extra light will not hurt.
Snapping turtles will also need an aquarium water heater. This heater should be shatterproof with extra reinforcement around the heating element. You do not want your snapping turtle to snap at the glass or burn itself.
Artificial plants may be added to the aquarium as well. It is usually not recommended to keep live aquatic plants as turtles end up uprooting and eating them, which adds to the mess of the aquarium.
Some popular live plant choices are Java fern (Leptochilus pteropus), hornwort (Ceratophyllum sp.), and Anacharis (Elodea genus).
They will appreciate lots of coverage in the form of rocks, branches, and twigs. Try to make the setup as natural as possible so that your turtle feels right at home.
Just like fish, turtles have preferred water quality parameters. First, they need dechlorinated water which you can easily do with an aquarium-specific brand.
Water temperature should be constant between 75-85° F (23.9-29.4° C), though they can endure temperatures above and below this. The rest of the aquarium should be kept between 80-85° F (26.7-29.4° C) with the basking area at or near 90° F (32.2° F).
pH should be near neutral at 7.0.
Knowing where your snapping turtle comes from is essential for the best settings. For example, those from the southern United States may not be as cold-tolerant as those from Canada.
What do you feed snapping turtles?
Snapping turtles are omnivores and will accept a variety of fresh food. Of course, what and how much you feed them will depend on the size of the turtle.
Baby snapping turtles need to be fed small foods regularly throughout the day. They can be given mealworms, blood worms, earthworms, and bite-size pieces of fish, shrimp, and crab. You can also feed them fruit and vegetables from time to time.
Adult snappers can have the same diet, just less often. You may also consider offering live food to get your turtle to exercise, though you should do this with caution as many feeder fish and shrimp carry internal parasites.
If you really want to give your snapping turtle a live food diet, it is strongly recommended to set up a culture of your own. This will provide you with more control over the nutrients your turtle receives and peace of mind that you’re not going to make your turtle sick.
You may regularly offer commercial turtle food, such as turtle-specific flakes and pellets for adult and baby snapping turtles. A high-quality turtle flake or artificial food pellet will have all the nutrients your turtle needs, though they will thrive with supplements of fresher foods as well.
Avoid wild-caught food such as wild insects and bait worms unless you are absolutely certain the area they were caught in is free of pesticides.
Snapping turtle tank mates
Such a large tank must mean that you can keep other things with your snapping turtle, right?
Snapping turtles do best alone. They are natural predators that aren’t afraid to taste anything that moves. Sluggish fish are a favorite meal.
Baby snapping turtle behavior
Snapping turtles can have very different behaviors depending on whether they’re in the water or on land.
In the water, these animals are equipped to attack and defend. They can quickly catch any prey that passes in front of them but can also retreat to the deep mud if they feel threatened.
On land, they’re quite different and become very aggressive. This is most likely due to their inability to get away quickly from a threat. Instead, they’ll hiss and snap at any potential threat that comes near them.
Though baby turtles might not show such extreme behaviors, they should not be underestimated and given their space.
It is also important to remember that snapping turtles naturally go through long periods of hibernation over the winter months. If you keep your turtle in an outdoor pond over the winter where water freezes, it is normal not to see your snapping turtle until the following spring.
It is unlikely that a snapping turtle in a temperature-regulated aquarium would hibernate as long as temperatures stay up. Still, they might eat less and go through dormant periods in a colder setting.
What do you do if you find a baby snapping turtle?
If you find a baby snapping turtle injured on the side of the road or in your backyard, you will need to know what to do to keep it alive.
You should note that it is also illegal to raise wild turtles in captivity in many states. For rehabilitation purposes, though, it could be a matter of life or death.
The first option should be to call a local wildlife sanctuary, no matter what. Their animal expert will either be able to take the wild animal under their care or give you further instructions for how to proceed.
Until then, keep the turtle in a warm and dark place to help relieve stress. Remember, never release a pet snapping turtle back into the wild.
Do baby snapping turtles carry diseases?
Diseases that can transfer between species are known as zoonotic.
Yes, both adult and baby snapping turtles can carry disease, namely Salmonella. Severe cases of Salmonella can be deadly if left untreated, so it’s crucial to seek medical attention if you suspect something is wrong.
Common symptoms of Salmonella are diarrhea, fever, and abdominal cramping. Salmonella is the result of coming in contact with the bacteria and introducing it into your body, usually through touching the mouth. These bacteria can be found on the skin, shell, and in the droppings of your turtle.
There are a few easy ways to prevent Salmonella:
1. Buy your snapping turtle from a reputable source.
2. Regularly clean your turtle’s enclosure with aquarium gloves (optional).
3. Thoroughly wash hands and used areas used once finished.
4. Never touch a wild snapping turtle without knowing proper handling techniques and safety protocol. If you must lift one, lift it by the shell as close to the hind legs as possible.
These easy steps should keep both you and your snapping turtle safe!
Snapping turtles might not be the first aquatic pet you think of to fill your large aquarium, but they’re loved by many. Before getting your pet turtle, check local animal laws to ensure ownership is not prohibited, and remember never to remove an animal from the wild.
Otherwise, you will have a best turtle friend for several decades. Snapping turtles can grow very large, and their aggression is widely unpredictable, but they’re fascinating to watch.
If you have any questions about snapping turtles, other turtle or tortoise species, or have had experience keeping your own prehistoric turtle before, don’t hesitate to leave a comment below!