Speaking of Nature: Two snapping turtles square off

  • Two adult snapping turtles have squared off, and it is pretty clear that the turtle on the right is upset. For The Recorder/Bill Danielson

  • This photo explains the “white” object that I saw from across the pond. Both of these turtles have pink wounds where they've bitten each other on the face. For The Recorder/Bill Danielson

  • Bill Danielson

For The Recorder
Sunday, August 27, 2017

I approached the small pond as quietly as I could. This was relatively easy because of the mowed grass trail, but I still wanted to make sure that I didn’t spook any interesting creature that might be feeding or relaxing near the water. Too many times I have arrived at such places with too much energy and chased off the local wildlife.

When I did finally see the water I discovered that the only animals in sight were a family of Canada geese. At this late date the goslings were almost indistinguishable from their parents, but their behavior betrayed them. The youngsters were content to nap and preen while the two adults stood at full attention and glared at me. I meant no harm, but I was not welcome.

A quick scan of the small, manmade pond turned up nothing. I would have to move on to another location if I wanted to see something interesting. I bade farewell to the geese and got nothing but hostile stares in return. Then, as I moved on, I heard a splash from the far side of the pond. A screen of willow branches prevented me from seeing anything but the gently expanding rings of ripples that the splash had created. Rats! I missed it.

Now I had reason to stay, however. Often a splash of this sort is followed by a surfacing of whatever animal may have been responsible. I stood for about five minutes and then became discouraged. Off I set again and splash! Okay, what was going on here? From the same spot came more ripples and this time I saw a shape in the water. But what was it?

I lifted my camera and took a couple photos to study. There was something dark in the water and then there was something quite a bit lighter. In one photo I saw the rounded shape that I deduced must belong to a large turtle. But what was that large white thing? My mind raced and then I finally hypothesized that a snapping turtle had somehow gotten hold of a green heron.

The turtle was clearly struggling with the other creature, but it appeared to be winning. The two animals remained at the surface for another moment and then disappeared below the water. That was that, I presumed. The bird would drown and the turtle would eat. If only I had been closer.

Off I set a third time and again I was halted by the sound of splashing. Determined to get to the bottom of this mystery I decided to cut around the shore of the pond so I could see what was going on behind that screen of willow branches. This brought me close to the family of geese and got me an angry hiss from one of the adults, but the family remained unfazed as I passed by.

Eventually I found a spot where I could get a closer look at the action in the water. As I had thought, there was indeed a snapping turtle struggling with something. What I hadn’t expected was that the turtle’s opponent was a second snapping turtle. This was something completely new for me and I had a front row seat to watch the melee ufold.

Two adult snapping turtles were in a protracted fight. One seemed to be the antagonist while the other seemed to be the stubborn opponent. They seemed to be closely matched in size and both bore the scars of their combat. One turtle would square off, blow a few bubbles in the water, and then lash out with a powerful head butt-bite combination that had a surprising amount of speed and force behind it. The second turtle would respond with a bite of its own, but seemed less interested in the fight. This sequence of bite, embrace, wrestle, release, repeat went on for over an hour as I watched and I realized that my fears of disturbing the turtles were baseless. They didn’t appear to notice that I was there.

There are only two reasons that I can think of that would cause two adult snapping turtles to fight like this. One possibility is territoriality. Perhaps the pond wasn’t big enough for the two of them and they were trying to figure out who would claim it. But to fight for so long over territory seems odd to me. The other reason for fighting is reproduction. Perhaps an amorous male was making unwanted advances toward a female. There were a couple times during the fight that I saw the antagonist attempt to take the back of the other turtle. This may have been coincidence, but I now think that it was in fact an aggressive male turtle trying to mate with an unwilling female.

After more than an hour I finally left the pond. The turtles were still fighting and I wondered how long it had been going on and how long it would continue. I was also reminded of how interesting any one particular outing can be. I may never see another snapping turtle fight in my life, but who know what waits for any of us on our next visit to a pond.

Bill Danielson has worked for the National Park Service, the US Forest Service, and the Massachusetts State Parks. He has been a professional writer and nature photographer for 19 years and he also teaches high school biology and physics. Visit www.speakingofnature.com for more information, or go to Speaking of Nature on Facebook.