Friday, May 29, 2015

Snapping Turtle Laying Eggs

A big turtle on a big ant hill is a pretty easy thing to see from a distance.  I didn’t even question my first glance identification of this object.  I just headed over to take a closer look.

Still sporting a coat of wet mud from the pond bottom, this female Common Snapping Turtle is in the process of excavating a cavity in which to deposit a load of eggs.  The process begins with a release of urine that both softens the soil and allows the hole to be dug without the sides caving in.

The turtle uses her hind legs to dig the hole, arrange the eggs, and cover her clutch.  She never sees what’s going on and does everything by touch.  The hole is dug to the extent of the turtle’s reach.  Larger turtles lay more eggs, but they also have a longer reach and excavate a larger hole.  This turtle measures about 13 inches from front of shell to rear. 

Once the underground cavity is completed, the turtle begins to lay eggs.  Eggs were dropped at a rate of one or two per minute until a total of about 30 eggs was reached.

After each egg was dropped, the turtle used her leg to sweep the area where the egg fell to make sure it made it into the hole.  Next she reached her leg down and pushed the latest deposit further into the cavity.

When the last egg was put into place, the turtle began stretching her hind legs far out and raking in loose soil with which to refill the hole.  Each scoop was carefully packed down until the soil in the hole was brought up to the level of the surrounding ground.

The ants had various responses to the disturbance caused by the turtle.  Some hurried to defend their nest.  Others collected water from the turtle’s body.  Ants biting around the turtle’s eyes caused her to give an occasional snap that had no impact on the activities of the ants.

Once the hole was filled, the turtle began moving up the mound.  As she climbed, she used all four legs to tear up soil and push it back in the direction of her eggs.  When she had finished, it was impossible to identify the exact site of her nest cavity.

The last bit of covering activity put the ants back into defensive mode and they swarmed the turtle.  I don’t think the turtle’s eyes were open for more than a few seconds the entire time she was on the ant mound.

No, she’s not dead.  This turtle has spent most of her life in a pond where her bulk is supported by water.  The effort to leave the water, construct a nest, lay eggs, and return to the pond requires a great expenditure of energy on her part.  Throughout the entire process, she would periodically go limp and rest a few seconds before continuing her work. 

During rest periods, the ants would calm down and go back to their water collecting activities.  May has been an extremely dry month at Blue Jay Barrens and the ants are taking advantage of every opportunity to collect fresh water.

After an extended nap atop the mound, the turtle revived and turned to face her home pond.

Off she goes, shedding ants with every step.  I just wonder how the eggs will fare in their ant protected incubator.

I’ve included a short video of some eggs being added to the nest.  A more complete video can be viewed on YouTube by clicking HERE.


  1. Fabulous post! I will send the link to my son. My son and grandson witnessed a turtle on their property looking for a site for her eggs. She dug, then moved, then dug, then moved. Son and grandson figured out they might have been to close for her comfort so they left the area. Perhaps they will see baby turtles nearby in the near future. :)

    1. Hi, Lois. Some nesting turtles are shy around people and others don't mind a gawking crowd. Sometimes the soil just isn't right and the turtle tries another location. I hope the boys are lucky enough to see some baby turtles.

  2. What a great story. I didn't know there was enough water on your barrens to support a snapping turtle let alone a whole brood of snappers.
    I love the exhausted photos, that's probably how I look when I'm trying to get a lot of digging done and just don't have the energy!

    1. Hi, Frank. Lack of water was a partial reason for the thick coat of mud on the turtle's shell. It's been over a month since we've had any runoff into the pond and the water is just about gone. The turtle had to sink way down into the mud to conceal herself. Since the pond goes dry every summer, turtles don't stay here year round. This one will take off soon to find another pond. When the pond fills again, another turtle will most likely show up.

  3. ...I really enjoyed this post, Steve. Super interesting.