Eastern Snapping Turtle

Photo of an eastern snapping turtle walking on land with algae on shell.
Scientific Name
Chelydra serpentina
Chelydridae (snapping turtles) in the order Testudines

The eastern snapping turtle is a large aquatic turtle with a big pointed head, long thick tail, and small plastron (lower shell). The upper shell may be tan, brown, or nearly black, but it is often covered with mud or algae. In young turtles, the upper shell has 3 rows of low keels, but these are less apparent in older individuals. The head is often covered with numerous small black lines or spots. Underparts are yellowish white. The upper part of the tail has large, pointy scales in a sawtoothed row. The eyes can be seen from above.

Take care if you plan on handling large snapping turtles! They have strong jaws and long necks. Grasping the turtle by the base of the tail (keeping it away from your legs) is safe for you, but it can potentially injure the turtle's backbone. If you must move a large snapper, it is best to consult a wildlife professional.

Similar species: The alligator snapping turtle (Macrochelys temminckii) is rare, declining, and protected by law. Its upper shell has 3 prominent ridges — 1 along the center line and 1 on either side. The large head terminates in a sharp, strongly hooked beak. The tail is long and muscular. Skin on the head, neck, and forelimbs has a number of fleshy projections or tubercles.

Other Common Names
Common Snapping Turtle

Upper shell length: 8–14 inches; weight 10–35 pounds.

Where To Find
Snapping Turtle Distribution Map


Commonly occurs in farm ponds, marshes, swamps, sloughs, rivers, and reservoirs — anywhere there is permanent water. Prefers bodies of water with a mud bottom, abundant aquatic vegetation, and submerged logs. Females often travel overland during egg-laying season and often are killed by cars. Both sexes travel overland seeking a new home if their pond dries up. Conservation of this species involves regulated hunting: Check the Wildlife Code of Missouri for specifics.

Insects, crayfish, fish, snails, earthworms, amphibians, snakes, small mammals, and birds. However, up to a third of the diet may consist of aquatic vegetation. Carrion may also be consumed.

To maintain healthy populations of this turtle, harvest is controlled by state regulations. Consult the most recent Wildlife Code of Missouri for current regulations.

Common throughout the state. This species was formerly called the "common snapping turtle," but scientists are now in favor of calling it the eastern snapping turtle. They removed the word "common" from the name because that term might mislead people into thinking this turtle is abundant, when instead it is only the most typical and widespread member of its family.

Life Cycle

Courtship and mating can take place between April and November, but mostly in late spring and early summer. June is the usual month for egg-laying, though two clutches may be laid per season. The female digs a nest in deep sand or loose soil and deposits usually 20–30 eggs. These hatch 55–125 days later, depending on environmental conditions. Males become mature in 4–5 years, and females in 4–7. These turtles are most active at night.

An economically important game animal pursued for its meat, which makes a fine stew and an excellent soup. Make sure you know the current regulations regarding their harvest. Studies have shown that these turtles do not harm game fish or waterfowl populations in natural conditions, though they may become a nuisance in artificial ponds.

These turtles help to keep the populations of many aquatic animals (and aquatic plants) in check. Meanwhile, studies have shown that up to 84 percent of nests can be destroyed by hungry predators such as skunks, raccoons, and mink.

Media Gallery
Similar Species

Where to See Species

This 6,705-acre area contains bottomland hardwood timber, open marsh, mixed shrub/scrub/emergent wetlands, row crop, oxbow lakes and sloughs, old fields, and upland woods.
The Thompson Ford Fishing Access, located on the Little St. Francis River, is an 84-acre tract of woodland and old fields.
About Reptiles and Amphibians in Missouri
Missouri’s herptiles comprise 43 amphibians and 75 reptiles. Amphibians, including salamanders, toads, and frogs, are vertebrate animals that spend at least part of their life cycle in water. They usually have moist skin, lack scales or claws, and are ectothermal (cold-blooded), so they do not produce their own body heat the way birds and mammals do. Reptiles, including turtles, lizards, and snakes, are also vertebrates, and most are ectothermal, but unlike amphibians, reptiles have dry skin with scales, the ones with legs have claws, and they do not have to live part of their lives in water.