This species has been introduced into California. It is not a native species.
It is unlawful to import, transport, or possess this species in California
except under permit issued by the California Department of Fish and Wildlife. (California Code of Regulations, Title 14, Excerpts, Section 671)
Snapping turtles have shown up in various locations in California, including the lake in San Luis Obispo County shown on the left, and the lake in Santa Barbara County shown on the right. It is not known if all of these populations are established and breeding.
Snapping turtles have a reputation for being dangerous meat-hungry beasts that bite off the legs of ducks, but here we see one on a hot summer day in a wetlands in Virginia slowly trying to eat small leaves.
As I was driving on a busy highway in Brevard County, Florida, I saw a snapping turtle trying to cross the highway. I quickly stopped and ran toward it, which caused it to turn around, sparing its life, no doubt. After taking some still shots, I only got a few seconds of video before it sat still. I tried to move it so it would walk again, but decided to give up after it snapped at my fingers a couple of times. Maybe I'll do better next time....
8 to 18.5 inches in shell length (20.3 - 47 cm). (Stebbins 2003)
A large freshwater turtle with a massive head with huge hooked jaws, a long tail, a saw-toothed crest, and a shell that looks like it is too small to fit the body.
The legs are large with webbed toes and heavy claws.
The tail is longer than half the length of the carapace.
Average weight is around 45 lbs, but some captives have weighed in at over 75 lbs.
Color and Pattern
The skin is gray, black, yellow, or tan, with tubercles on the neck.
White flecks occur on some individuals.
The color of the carapace ranges from black, brown, or olive to tan.
Often it is covered with mud or algae, which helps camouflage the turtle.
It is heavily serrated on the rear, and scutes may have a pattern of radiating lines.
The plastron is tan or yellow.
Male / Female Differences
Males typically grow larger than females.
Young have 3 prominent serrated ridges on the carapace. These ridges become less conspicuous as the turtle ages. The tail of a juvenile is longer than the length of the shell.
Life History and Behavior
Aquatic, found in or near water.
An excellent swimmer.
Considered most active at night in the southern part of its range, it is apparently more active during the day in the northern part of its range, which probably includes the Southern California locations, also.
Sometimes seen basking on or under the surface in shallow water.
Often rests buried in the mud with its eyes and nostrils exposed in water shallow enough that it can raise its long neck up to allow the nostrils to break the surface and breathe without moving out of the mud.
Active most of the year, becoming dormant in areas with cold winters, generally in late October.
Remains dormant either burrowed into the mud bottom, or under overhanging banks, root snags, stumps, brush, logs, or other debris.
Large groups have been found hibernating together, sometimes with other turtle species.
Emerges some time between March to May, depending on the climate.
Turtles Walking on Land Do Not Always Need to be Picked Up and Rescued
Turtles sometimes leave the water to search for food, a better place to live, a mate, or to lay their eggs in the spring - typically from March to June. If you see a turtle walking on the land, it is probably not sick or lost, so the best thing you can do for the turtle is to leave it alone. Some people want to help a turtle they think is in danger by picking it up and bringing it home or to a wildlife rehabilitation center, but most of the time this harms the turtle by removing it from the wild without reason. Sometimes turtles do get lost or stranded in yards or on busy roads or somewhere where they may be in danger. If you find one in such a situation, it's ok to move it out of danger, but it's best to leave it in a safe place as close to where you found it as possible.
Longevity has been estimated at up to 40 years.
Snapping turtles are
ill-tempered and capable of producing a very serious bite.
Diet and Feeding
Omnivorous, eating anything that fits into its jaws, including snails, earthworms, shrimp, crayfish, insects, fish, frogs, salamanders, reptiles, small turtles, snakes, birds, mammals, plants, and carrion.
They can prey on adult waterfowl by grabbing a foot, then grabbing the bird's neck, or pulling it underwater to drown it. (Herpetological Review 48(1), 2017)
Young turtles tend to forage actively, while adults tend to lie in ambush.
Adults become sexually mature in four to five years.
Females crawl onto land, sometimes travelling over great distances, to dig a nest where they lay a clutch of eggs, generally from 20 - 40, (ranging from 6 - 104).
Egg laying takes place mostly in June and July (but can occur any time between May and October).
The eggs hatch in 9 - 18 weeks.
During cold winters, hatchlings will overwinter in the nest.
Females may retain viable sperm for several years, so they do not necessarily need to breed with a male each year to produce viable eggs.
Found in just about every type of freshwater habitat in its natural range, including marshes, ponds, lakes, rivers, and slow streams. Prefers slow-moving shallow waters with a muddy or sandy bottom and abundant aquatic vegetation or submerged roots and trees. Also occurs at the edges of deep lakes and rivers and in brackish coastal waters.
Native and Introduced Range
The native range of the species Chelydra serpentina - Common Snapping Turtle is roughly from the east coast of North America to the Rocky Mountains and from southern Canada to the Gulf Coast, and along the east coast of Mexico from Veracruz through Central America to Ecuador. The species has been introduced into a few areas west of the Rockies where it may or may not be established, including Oregon, Washington, Utah, Nevada, Arizona, and California.
Sightings In California
Below are some locations where common snapping turtles have been seen that I have found in books, museum records, iNaturalist, and in emails sent to this web site. Since many snapping turtles seen in California are abandoned or escaped pets, it is not possible to know if the turtles found represent an established breeding population, except where a nest was found. There are certainly many more locations where this turtle has been seen in the state than I list below.
Alameda County - Lake Elizabeth, Fremont
- Bangor Ditch
Contra Costa County
- in a culvert below a roadway in Vine Hill
- a freshwater channel in wetlands adjacent to the San Joaquin River near Oakley. (Found injured in dredging debris.)
- Near Fresno. (reported as established in Stebbins field guides, 1972, and 2012.)
- along the Lower Colorado River, Imperial County (Stebbins, 2003)
Los Angeles County
- L. A. County Arboretum, Arcadia
- El Dorado East Regional Park, Long Beach
- Cabrillo Beach, San Pedro (hatchling)
- Piute Ponds at Edwards Air Force Base
- Haines Creek ponds
- the marsh near the UC Irvine campus
- Mile Square Regional Park, Fountain Valley
- Gibson Ranch County Park, Elverta
San Bernardino County
- Big Bear Lake
San Diego County
- A nest was seen on the San Diego River in Mission Valley. (Jeffrey M. Lemm (2006)
Other reports confirm that there is a breeding population of snapping turtles in the San Diego river.
- Tecolote Canyon
- Otay Lakes
- in an aqueduct in Oceanside
- Mission Trails Regional Park
- in canals draining into the San Diego River, San Diego
- Otay Valley Regional Park, San Diego
San Francisco County - the Palace of Fine Arts in San Francisco
- Golden Gate Park, San Francisco
- Lake Merced Park, San Francisco
San Jose County
- Almaden Reservoir, San Jose County
San Luis Obispo County
- Oso Flaco Lake
Santa Barbara County
- Andree Clark Bird Refuge in Santa Barbara (Stebbins, 2003)
- UCSB lagoon
- Childs Estate Zoo
- Alice Keck Memorial Park
- U.C. Davis
Notes on Taxonomy
Formerly two subspecies were recognize in the USA:
C. s. serpentina - Common Snapping Turtle, and
C. s. osceola - Florida Snapping Turtle.
Notes from the SSAR
Scientific and Standard English Names List - Herpetological Circular No. 29, 2012:
"Shaffer et al. (2008; Biology of the Snapping Turtle, John Hopkins Univ. Press.) provided convincing genetic evidence that C. serpentina is a "single, virtually invariant lineage" and hence abandoned the recognition of the subspecies C. s. osceola Stejneger, 1918."
This voracious predator may pose a threat to the survival of native animals. It has been introduced into various locations probably due to negligent pet owners. It is not known if turtles in these locations are reproducing, but some nesting has been observed.
Stebbins, Robert C., and McGinnis, Samuel M. Field Guide to Amphibians and Reptiles of California: Revised Edition (California Natural History Guides) University of California Press, 2012.
Stebbins, Robert C. California Amphibians and Reptiles. The University of California Press, 1972.
Flaxington, William C. Amphibians and Reptiles of California: Field Observations, Distribution, and Natural History. Fieldnotes Press, Anaheim, California, 2021.
Samuel M. McGinnis and Robert C. Stebbins. Peterson Field Guide to Western Reptiles & Amphibians. 4th Edition. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Publishing Company, 2018.
Stebbins, Robert C. A Field Guide to Western Reptiles and Amphibians. 3rd Edition. Houghton Mifflin Company, 2003.
Behler, John L., and F. Wayne King. The Audubon Society Field Guide to North American Reptiles and Amphibians. Alfred A. Knopf, 1992.
Powell, Robert., Joseph T. Collins, and Errol D. Hooper Jr. A Key to Amphibians and Reptiles of the Continental United States and Canada. The University Press of Kansas, 1998.
Bartlett, R. D. & Patricia P. Bartlett. Guide and Reference to the Turtles and Lizards of Western North America (North of Mexico) and Hawaii. University Press of Florida, 2009.
Carr, Archie. Handbook of Turtles: The Turtles of the United States, Canada, and Baja California. Cornell University Press, 1969.
Ernst, Carl H., Roger W. Barbour, & Jeffrey E. Lovich. Turtles of the United States and Canada. Smithsonian Institution 1994.
(2nd Edition published 2009)
Lemm, Jeffrey. Field Guide to Amphibians and Reptiles of the San Diego Region (California Natural History Guides). University of California Press, 2006.
The following conservation status listings for this animal are taken from the October 2021 California "Special Animals List" and the October 2021 "State and Federally Listed Endangered and Threatened Animals of California" list, both of which are produced by multiple agencies and available here: https://www.wildlife.ca.gov/Data/CNDDB/Plants-and-Animals. You can check the link to see if there are more recent lists.
If no status is listed here, the animal is not included on either list. This most likely indicates that there are no serious conservation concerns for the animal. To find out more about an animal's status you can go to the NatureServe and IUCN websites to check their rankings.