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Reptiles of Washington

Snapping turtle 
(Chelydra serpentina)


What they look like

  • The snapping turtle has a long neck and large head complete with sharp, hooked, and powerful jaws.
  • They have dark serrated upper shells that vary in color from green to brown to black, and much smaller lower shells that do not completely cover their undersides.
  • Average adult shell length range from 8 to 12 inches in length.
  • The turtles can weigh anywhere between 10 to 35 pounds.

Where they live

  • Snapping turtles are an introduced species in some western states, including Washington State.
  • Their native range spans from eastern United States to the Rocky Mountains, from southern Canada to the Gulf of Mexico, and into Central America.
  • Even though they prefer slow-moving water and soft or sandy bottoms, they can adapt to a wide variety of aquatic habitats, including creeks, bogs, swamps, marshes, pools, lakes, streams, and rivers.
  • Even habitats with brackish water (seawater and freshwater mix) or polluted water can be tolerated.

What they eat

  • Snapping turtles spend much of their time scavenging along the bottoms of ponds for vegetation to eat.
  • However, the majority of their diet is animals, including insects, worms, fish, frogs, snakes, birds, crayfish, small mammals, and dead animals.
  • A moss-covered shell helps camouflage the predator, who will quickly ambush prey using its powerful sharp jaws.


  • Females travel long distances away from their aquatic habitats to lay their eggs, the only time they make such a journey.
  • Sometime between May and July, they dig shallow bowl-shaped nests using their hind legs, lay 20 to 40 eggs, cover the nest, and return to the water.
  • Predation is highly likely during the time it takes to hatch, which is usually around 80 to 90 days.
  • Using a small egg tooth atop their beaks, the young break open their egg shells and head towards water, another time of high predation.

Cool Biology Facts

  • Snapping turtles are so large that they cannot even hide in their own shells! Instead, they rely on their powerful snapping jaws for defense.
  • Some female snapping turtles have been known to travel as far as one mile in search of a good nesting site.



Their meat is a common ingredient in turtle soup and is heavily harvested in some areas. They can also be vulnerable on roads when making their long journeys on land.