Shoulda been a herpetologist

There’s something about a reptile.

With their scaly skin and their cold blood, reptiles seem so primordial, like they just crawled out of the ooze. When I was a kid, I was always the one who wanted to hold the snake when we did the field trip to the zoo. I love the weird things lizards can do, like change color and grow their tails back. Say what you will for the higher primates – they can’t do that.

Since we moved here, I’ve developed a particular fondness for snapping turtles. If paleontologists hadn’t already established that dinosaurs were reptiles, all they’d have to do is take one look at a snapping turtle. That face! Those teeth! Those folds of leathery skin!

Snapping turtles are probably the strangest creatures in our little pondside ecosystem (barring insects, which are the weirdest things going). They live a very long time – some estimates go as high as 100 years. They can thrive in highly polluted waters – sewer systems, even. They hibernate in the soft mud at the bottom of a pond, where they burrow down and go without breathing for six months. Six months!

What’s weirdest to me is that, if you believe the scientists, the snapping turtles we find sunning themselves on a log look almost exactly like the ones who lived over 200 million years ago.  I do believe the scientists, mostly because a snapping turtle looks indestructible.  All it needs is crenellation and gun turrets, and it’s a fortress on legs.

We see small turtles in our pond pretty regularly, and we occasionally find big ones crawling around on the property. Or maybe it’s the same big one, and we see it over and over. We didn’t know.

So, last September, when we found a turtle with a 15-inch carapace slowly making its way across our driveway, we thought we’d find out. Kevin took a bottle of spray paint in OSHA-orange (we happened to have it for our lobster pot buoys) and painted a big dot on its back.

I was a little worried that a big fluorescent splotch was a bit conspicuous, but Kevin pointed out that an animal with no natural predators doesn’t have much to worry about in the visibility department. Our turtle, Osha, didn’t seem fazed by his new coloration, and went on his way. (Or it could have been her way. I’m betting on he only because he’s very large for a female.)

We didn’t see him, or any other turtle, until yesterday evening.

Kevin and I were sitting outside the turkey pen, waiting to see if the birds would roost for the night on the new roost bar Kevin put up in the pen. It was still, and the only noise was the occasional call from frog or bird. The rustle that came out of the woods was clearly neither of those. It was something big.

We got up to investigate, following the sound of the rustle. When whatever it was didn’t flee into the trees at our approach, we had a pretty good clue that it was a turtle. “Flee” isn’t in its vocabulary.

And sure enough, there was the saurian head and the two no-nonsense feet sticking out of the underbrush. We moved the leaves aside, and could see the faded remains of an orange dot.

I could not have predicted how happy it made me to see Osha back. Partly was the simple satisfaction of doing an experiment with a positive result. Is it the same turtle? Yes! It’s the same turtle. And part of it was probably that, in putting a dot on his back, we’d branded him “our” turtle, and established a connection. But I think I also had a sense that, if the same turtle keeps returning to the same woods by the same pond, year after year, all’s right with the world.

Of course, when he finds the same two jackasses with the same can of spray paint, year after year, he may change his habits.

I hope not.

9 people are having a conversation about “Shoulda been a herpetologist

  1. Margaret Fisher says:

    These guys are amazing! I once saw one about the size of Osha somehow push himself into the air, do a 180, and land heading in the opposite direction. He was on an asphalt roadway which made for a better takeoff than deep mud.

    Osha, for the risk Kevin runs every time he brands your friend?

  2. Hey, Tamar … I don’t normally post here, but wanted to mention . . . just be cautious about repeat applications of the paint on the shell — what kind and how much. Turtle shells are porous, paints and chemicals can clog pores, interfere with ventilation, shells can get infected. Sometimes toxins can be absorbed. A lot of turtles, especially if they’ve been around the planet for a while, have distinct markings on their shells. If you have a good photo it would probably be easy to identify Osha the next time around, using those markings alone. Snappers probably wish they had no predators … but for the humans who like to eat them.

  3. Tamar, I caught this post in my RSS feed a little while ago and needed to wait to get home to reply. I wanted to warn you about the same thing that Ingrid has just mentioned. Be careful about using spray paint on the shell. Even small changes to the shell can affect a turtle’s health and ability to thermoregulate. The shell structure and color are both important to turtles. As Ingrid said, each carapace has it’s own fingerprint. It’s much better to take a close-up photo of the shell markings. If you absolutely have to use a color marker, you’d want to use something you could safely put on your own skin (e.g., nail polish), being careful to only color a little piece in the center of a smaller scute (one of the individual “plates” that make up the shell).

    Also, your turtle may very well be female. With a 15-inch carapace, she may very well be over 30 years old. Turtles have a sort of biological imperative to travel back and back and back to to the place they were born in order to lay their eggs. It’s not unusual for them to risk life and limb to follow the same path back to their birthplace, even if there’s now a road or a house now in the path. Given the cool season y’all have had up there, it wouldn’t be strange for her to be nesting now, either.

    Finally, snappers are one of the few who can actually turn all the way around to bite you. I’ve been bitten by iguanas but not by turtles. I hear it’s no fun! (I’m pretty sure that you and Kevin are already aware of this.)

    Great picture, BTW!

  4. Cat — When you do, you gotta send me a photo.

    Margaret — I wish I’d been there! It’s hard to picture a turtle doing that. And we named him Osha because the color is OSHA-orange, but I like your explanation better.

    Ingrid — Thanks for taking the time to post, and to alert me to the problem. We’ll either mark him more safely or try to take a good photo next time. Are you the Ingrid who posts regularly on NorCal Cazadora and The Mindful Carnivore? I always enjoy your comments there, so I hope you’ll have things to say here. And, if you’re not that Ingrid, thanks for coming out of the shadows and commenting.

    Yvette — Ditto on the warning, and for the turtle behavior info. I’d read that females tend to wander quite a bit, laying eggs in different places, and it was the big males who tended to stay put. That’s part of the reason I assumed Osha was male.

    And I can assure you we keep well out of reach of the jaws, although I’ve read that snapping turtles won’t actually bite you unless they are really, really annoyed. I don’t think I want to find out.

    Hazel — Well, I guess we just have more fun over here!

  5. We employ the paint and release principle with all of the porcupines we catch but not as an experiment..for us it is to note who has not been on our property before..once you get kicked off our property it is for good..we hope. So far not returnees. When we catch the quilled creatures we take them 10km away and let them go..we do not want them back..Our dog loves them too much and tries to kiss them..the results are usually disasterous! I caught and released some painted turtles just last week with my nieces and nephews..they were too cute.

  6. I dunno, Tamar- that smile-line looks pretty crenellated to me. What a great picture!

    My old neighbor in Jacksonville (the same one who was a great organic gardener) had a snapping turtle living in the ravine between his house and the in-laws, and he used to go feed the turtle from time to time with a hunk of meat on a string, just to get him to come out of his culvert. Snapping turtles are pretty cool, after all, but I hear they can snap fingers in two without really trying.

    I’m glad that, among all your livestock, you have a pet, even if he/she doesn’t know it and is only around part time.

  7. martha in mobile says:

    I love turtles in the wild, too. We live near a spring, and we get box turtles in our back yard starting in May until they wander off to hibernate in October. We have come to recognize several by their shell color and markings, and there are about 5 that come to our back door to be fed fruit and dog food. One particularly large, fierce, and randy male has been returning for 3 years. I am always unreasonably delighted when the first one shows up in the spring.

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