Fairfax County Wildlife: The Snapping Turtle

Chelydra serpentina copyright 2005 John WhiteTough looking critter, huh? Wish we could say he has a heart of gold, but mostly he just wants to be left alone.

This is our local buddy, the snapping turtle (Chelydra serpentina). It’s Virginia’s largest freshwater turtle, and the second largest freshwater turtle in the United States. The biggest is the alligator snapping turtle, but those aren’t naturally found in Virginia. So if you see a reptile like this in Fairfax County, it’s likely the plain ol’ snapper.

Snapping turtles are a native species in Virginia, and they’re pretty commonly seen in our area. You’ll find them hanging around ponds, lakes, streams, rivers and swamps.

Chelydra serpentina copyright 2004 John WhiteHow can you confirm what you’re looking at? Well, start by considering its size (they’re big) and then look at three things – its top, its beginning and its end, known as its shell, head and tail. The adult snapping turtle has a large head with a moderately curved, sharp beak. At the other end, the tail is long and has a series of jagged scales on its top side that look like the teeth on a saw. Its upper shell (carapace) will be rough, and there are three rows of ridges, called keels, running its length. The shell also is serrated along its rear margin, and – here’s a good tip – it’s usually covered with mud or algae. Young turtles have more pronounced ridges and peaks on their carapace that smooth with age. Older specimens are often smooth-shelled.

So how big is a big turtle in our area? The length of an adult snapping turtle’s shell may be 15 to 18 inches, although we don’t recommend pulling out a rule and testing that fact. They usually weigh anywhere from 10 to 35 pounds, and some may top out around 50.

Snapping turtles are active from March through October, but you might see one in water any month of the year. Most of their nesting occurs in late May through June. Snapping turtles rarely leave their aquatic habitat except during the breeding season, at which time females move upland in search of a place to dig a nest and lay eggs. During this time of year, you might see one crossing a road or digging in a yard. When they do travel, they can go a long ways. They’ve been found as far as a mile from the nearest water source.

Chelydra serpentina copyright 2006 John WhiteAre they scary? No, but don’t try to pet one or lift one. Although generally docile in water, snapping turtles will strike viciously if captured or cornered out of water. Follow the usual rules for wildlife. Don’t bother them. Watch and enjoy from a distance.

Thanks to Fairfax County Wildlife Management Specialist Dr. Katherine Edwards, a Certified Wildlife Biologist and Wildlife Management Specialist with the Fairfax County Police Department for supplying the information in this blog.

Copyrighted snapping turtle photos are used with the permission of John White.


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About Fairfax County Park Authority

About Fairfax County Park Authority HISTORY: On December 6, 1950, the Fairfax County Board of Supervisors created the Fairfax County Park Authority. The Park Authority was authorized to make decisions concerning land acquisition, park development and operations in Fairfax County, Virginia. To date, 13 park bond referenda have been approved between 1959 and 2016. Today, the Park Authority has 427 parks on more than 23,000 acres of land. We offer 325 miles of trails, our most popular amenity. FACILITIES: The Park system is the primary public mechanism in Fairfax County for the preservation of environmentally sensitive land and resources, areas of historic significance and the provision of recreational facilities and services including: • Nine indoor RECenters with swimming pools, fitness rooms, gyms and class spaces. Cub Run features an indoor water park and on-site naturalist • Eight golf courses from par-3 to championship level, four driving ranges including the new state-of-the-art heated, covered range at Burke Lake Golf Center • Five nature and visitor centers. Also nine Off-Leash Dog Activity areas • Three lakefront parks including Lake Fairfax, Lake Accotink and Burke Lake, with campgrounds at Burke Lake and Lake Fairfax. The Water Mine Family Swimmin’ Hole at Lake Fairfax, Our Special Harbor Sprayground at Lee as well as an indoor water park at Cub Run RECenter • Clemyjontri Park, a fully accessible playground in Great Falls featuring two acres of family friendly fun and a carousel, as well as Chessie’s Big Backyard and a carousel at the Family Recreation Area at Lee District Park • An ice skating rink at Mount Vernon RECenter and the Skate Park in Wakefield Park adjacent to Audrey Moore RECenter • Kidwell Farm, a working farm of the 1930s-era at Frying Pan Farm Park in Herndon, now with historic carousel • Eight distinctive historic properties available for rent • A working grist mill at Colvin Run in Great Falls and a restored 18th century home at Sully Historic Site in Chantilly • A horticulture center at Green Spring Gardens in Annandale • Natural and cultural resources protected by the Natural Resource Management Plan and Cultural Resource Plans, plus an Invasive Management Area program that targets alien plants and utilizes volunteers in restoring native vegetation throughout our community • Picnic shelters, tennis courts, miniature golf courses, disc golf courses, off-leash dog parks, amphitheaters, a marina, kayaking/canoeing center • Provides 263 athletic fields, including 39 synthetic turf fields, and manages athletic field maintenance services at 417 school athletic fields. PARK AUTHORITY BOARD: A 12-member citizen board, appointed by the Fairfax County Board of Supervisors, sets policies and priorities for the Fairfax County Park Authority. Visit https://www.fairfaxcounty.gov/news2/social-hub/ for Fairfax County Government's Comment Policy.

2 thoughts on “Fairfax County Wildlife: The Snapping Turtle

  1. Grant James

    I saw a 2ft long turtle in Chantilly VA, in the fenced in ponds next to Walmart/Route 28 in Chantilly.


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