Charles C[onrad] Abbott.

A naturalist's rambles about home online

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are exposed to attacks from a voracious animal, which
takes advantage of the habit of the minnow of lying
more than half buried in the mud. The musk-turtle is
able to discover the whereabouts of the mud-minnow
without alarming the fish, and, cautiously approaching
from behind, seizes it by the head. This they generally
completely sever from the body, and then draw from the
mud the decapitated body.

I have lately had specimens of these turtles in an
aquarium, in which I placed a number of mud-minnows ;
and have seen the turtles time and again seize the fish
with all the dexterity and quickness of a snapper. I be-
lieve this habit has gradually come about much in the
following way: These mud-minnows have a curious
habit of assuming the strangest positions, often quite
unlif elike, and maintain them for many minutes at a time.
They might readily be mistaken for bent twigs or life-
less, distorted fish. Under these circumstances, a prowl-
ing musk-turtle, seeing a mud-minnow which it supposed
to be dead, might snap at it in a somewhat leisurely way
and succeed in seizing it. More frequently, however, it
would fail in the effort. Want of success would, how-
ever, insure greater caution and quicker movements on
the part of the turtle, and finally result in establishing the
method of stealthy approach and quick snap that charac-
terizes the true snapping-turtle. Whether this explains
the origin of the habit or not, certain it is that the musk-
turtle does now seize active, living prey, and that it exer-
cises much caution in approaching, and dexterity in seiz-
ing it.

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The last of the series of ten species of turtles found in
this vicinity, but by no means the least, is the ferocious

This is our largest and fiercest turtle. In many ways
it differs materially from all the others. The common
name " snapper " is derived from the manner in which
it seizes its prey. This snapping movement is not,
strictly speaking, confined to this species, as has been
shown, but it is intensified, as it were, among them, and
is withal so sudden and effective that it dwarfs all like
efforts on the part of the other species. When a fish is
seen approaching, the snapper, even in the close confines
of an aquarium, withdraws its head, and at the same time
elevates its body by its fore-feet ; then, if the fish comes
near enough, the neck of the snapper is suddenly length-
ened, its body thrown forward, and the fish seized.
Once let the powerful jaws close upon the victim, and
nothing can force the turtle to relax its hold.

Fish are not, however, the only food of the snappers,
as they do not hesitate to attack anything in the way of
beast or bird that they can seize, and if they succeed in
drowning the animal that they have caught, they soon
make a meal of it. I have known a quite small snapper
to seize a full-grown musk-rat by a hind leg and drag it
into deep water, where I suppose it was held until
drowned. Certainly, numbers of young ducks are annu-
ally destroyed by these voracious creatures.

When on land, the snapper seems to be quite at home,
although his movements are very awkward in appearance.
They are not, however, really so, as their rate of travel
overland is greater than that of any other of the strictly
aquatic species of turtle. The late Dr. Holbrook, in his
a American Herpetology," says, the snapper "moves
along with head and neck stretched out, moving them to

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and fro as he proceeds, as though inspecting the ground
as he goes. His walk is said to resemble that of our
alligator ; like them, falling now and then on his sternum
to rest, and then proceeding."

In New Jersey these turtles vary, in successive years,
as to the time of leaving the water for the purpose of
laying their eggs. I have occasionally found them as
early as the first week in April, but usually not until a
month later. My impression is that they do not wander
so far from the water, and are less particular about the
localities chosen for depositing their eggs than are the
other turtles. I have often found them but two or three
hundred yards from the pond or creek from which the
animals had come. They dig quite shallow beds, com-
paratively, in sandy soils, and place therein their whole
complement of eggs. Once laid, no care seems to be ex-
ercised in covering the spot, and so it is readily found.
Skunks have a decided liking for their eggs, and may
frequently be found, during moonlight nights, digging
them up. Indeed, in isolated spots, the skunks will be
abroad during the day, and dig out the eggs as soon as
the fierce old snapper has left them.

It is at this time of the year that we may most con-
fidently expect to hear the snappers make that peculiar
sound which comprehends their entire range of vocal
powers. It is a hoarse "kweep," much like thac oi the
Muhlenberg turtle, and uttered under similar circum-
stances. In thus limiting their vocal utterances to a sin-
gle sound I may perhaps be somewhat hasty, but, after
years of patient watching, I have never heard any other
that could be confidently attributed to them. Old fisher-
men and snapper-hunters have told me, however, that they
do occasionally make a deep roaring or bellowing sound,
by which I understand a roaring sound heard at a great

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distance. Such a sound I, too, have heard coming, as I
thought at the time, directly from the water, but I never
saw a snapper in the act of uttering it ; so I can only
mention a peculiar, hoarse note, like " kweep," which, to
my positive knowledge, is often made by them early in
May, or just previous to the time of their leaving the
water for the purpose of depositing their eggs.

No sooner are the young snappers free from the egg-
case than they make their way directly to the nearest
water, guided, I suppose, by the sense of smell. Once
in their proper element, and their activity becomes very
noticeable. All the day long they paddle ceaselessly
about, snapping at every minnow and insect in and out
of reach. According to Professor Agassiz, this snapping
habit commences wonderfully soon in life. In his famous
"Contributions to the Natural History of the United
States," he says : " The snapping turtle . . . exhibits . . .
its ferocious habits even before it leaves the egg, before
it breathes through lungs ; before its derm is ossified to
form a bony shield, etc. ; nay, it snaps with its gaping
jaws at anything brought near, though it be still sur-
rounded by its amnios and allantois, and its yolk still
exceeds in bulk its whole body." And again : " I have
seen it snapping in the same fierce manner as it does
when full grown, at a time it was a pale, colorless embryo,
wrapped in its foetal envelopes . . . three months before
hatching." What, then, may we not expect from this
animal when it reaches a foot or more in length ? To it,
indeed, may be attributed the scarcity of much of that
animal life now frequenting our waters. On the other
hand, the snapper seems to have no enemies to bother it,
unless it be such as prey upon the very young. Can it
be that their undue increase is checked by mammals, like
the skunk, which hunt and devour their eggs ? When


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we consider this immunity from the attacks of enemies,
and the numbers of eggs that an adult annually lays, the
number of snappers found in any one locality is not very
great, and hence it is evident there must be, somewhere,
a check upon their increase.

We might be led to suppose, from their activity and
the enormous quantity of food consumed, that the growth
of the young snapper was very rapid for the first two or
three years ; but this is not the case. Agassiz determined
that when a snapper was six and one half inches long, it
was twelve years old ; when twelve inches long, it was
thirty-eight years old. After twelve years he states that
growth is much slower, and mentions one instance of a
growth of but one inch in forty-five years.

I have not been able to learn what may be considered
the maximum size of this turtle. In fact, there appears
to be no limit to their growth. I have seen one specimen
that weighed just sixty pounds, and have been told of
others considerably heavier. Specimens weighing over
thirty pounds, however, are not common.

A few words, in conclusion, with reference to a habit
common to all our turtles, that of hibernation. On the
approach of cold weather these animals, as a class, are
supposed to bury themselves deeply in the mud at the
bottom of ponds and streams, and there to remain until
every vestige of winter has disappeared. This is the
common impression, though I question if it be strictly
true. Careful examination will show that the supposed
torpidity has, in part, no real existence. Indeed, the
habit is affected very materially by the severity x>f the
winter ; for when there occurs a very green Christmas,
it is not a remarkable occurrence to find a box-tortoise
on the sunny south side of some wooded slope. Languid
and limp, it may be, but it will be found to have enough

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vitality to enjoy a midday outing, and vigor sufficient to
enable it to return to its quiet underground retreat
toward the close of the day. In most ponds of any con-
siderable extent, frequented by turtles, there are one or
more deep holes wherein many of the different species
are found to take refuge after the first hard or plant-
killing frost. Here they remain, in the deeper and
warmer water of these holes, when the shallower portions
of the ponds are coated with ice. Now, do they lie in
the mud in these holes in a torpid condition ?

Throughout the winter, in these same deep holes, I
have found that many of our fish also congregate ; and
the turtles, to a certain extent, during the winter prey
upon these fish ; the snappers occasionally catching one,
and the other turtles feeding upon the remains of the
snapper's feast. What first gave me this impression was
the fact that I frequently found in nets set under the ice,
even in midwinter, fishes that had been partially eaten •
and as this occurs quite often in summer, I took it for
granted that the offender — a turtle — was the same in each
case. Led by this inference, I baited hooks and placed
them in the deep holes of a large pond, and in several
instances succeeded in catching specimens of the stinking
or musk-turtle.

Snappers, in the same way, have been caught during
the severest cold weather, in the deep holes in ponds, and
about large springs that discharge their waters on level
ground. It would seem, therefore, that if the water re-
mains above the freezing-point, these turtles continue
in a fairly active state, even though they do not find any
large amount of food. In such spring-holes, the grass
remains green throughout winter ; a few frogs linger in
the waters ; an occasional bittern haunts the spot ; pike,
too, are not unusual, and the snapper therefore has corn-
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pany, at least, and occasionally he makes a meal of some
one of the hardy visitors which, like himself, brave the
winter, and does not seek to avoid its rigors by a pro-
tracted, torpid sleep in the mud.

Of the series of ten species of turtles that I have men-
tioned, some of them, it may be, are so sensitive to cold
that they hibernate regularly, and for about one half of
the year ; but in the case of the snapper, mud-turtle, and
stinking or musk-turtle, the habit at best is neither gen-
eral nor regular. And yet it is probable that these
three species, though they do not hibernate regularly, yet
do so when cut off from access to the atmosphere by the
growth of thick ice ; for, while these turtles can stay
under the water for a comparatively long time, yet, if all
their other functions are active, respiration must neces-
sarily be active also ; and it is questionable how long they
can live without access to the air, notwithstanding the
fact that, like the frogs, they can absorb sufficient air
through their skins, and so remain beneath the surface
for a long time, if the water be thoroughly aerated. I
have never tried to drown a box-tortoise, but have found
them dead in springs, into which they had fallen. Whether
they died from suffocation or starvation could not be de-
termined, but the fact that they are better lunged and
thicker skinned would show that they could not be de-
prived of direct access to the atmosphere without fatal
effect ; but all the others, it would appear, being thinner
skinned, could depend safely upon their power of skin

In the case of skin-respiration by the frog, Professor
Semper has stated, in his volume entitled " Animal Life,"
that " Milne-EdWards the elder showed long since that
frogs, when prevented from coming to the surface, were
able to live under water so long as they were not cut off

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from the possibility of obtaining food, and were freely sup-
plied with fresh water. In such a case general skin-res-
piration must necessarily take the place of lung-respira-
tion." By experiment I have been able to determine
that a snapper can remain twenty-one days beneath run-
ning water without food, and yet not appear to have
suffered; although its appetite was perfectly wonderful
when the creature was relieved from its confined and
submerged quarters.

Considering, then, the facts, that one of these species
has been known to take a baited hook in midwinter, and
that individuals of this same or another species have been
found to eat of fishes that were entangled in a net set be-
neath the ice, and bearing in mind that they have been
found in quite an active state in shallow but open waters
even in midwinter, it is safe to assert that certain of our
turtles do not regularly hibernate from autumn until
spring, as has been generally supposed ; the snappers, the
musk-turtles, and the "mud-diggers," furnishing the
prominent exceptions to the rule.

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uz gatjnt's talk about tuetles.

" Chbistmas of '77 was a green one, you may remem-
ber," remarked Uz, as he shook the ashes from his pipe.
" It didn't need any hickory logs blazin' on the hearth,
such as these," and he stirred the ashes and rearranged
the wood on the andirons as he spoke of them. " The
weather had been mild for a long time, and once I heard
frogs singin'. "Well, this kind of thing sort of came to a
focus on Christmas day, which was warm even in the
shade. The river was low, the meadows dry, and the
crows as noisy as in April. I felt sort of restless like,
and took a walk in the meadows. I left my gun home,
and thought I'd just look 'round. Without thinking of
them when I started out, I wandered over to your marshy
meadow, and began pokin' about with my cane for snap-
pers. You know I take kindly to a bowl of snapper-soup
of my own fixin'."

" Yes, I do that, and can run along neck-and-neck with
you, when you're the cook."

" Well, I followed the main ditch down, jumpin' from
hassock to hassock, and kept probin' in the mud with
my cane, when, after a bit, I felt something hard at the
end of my stick. It wasn't a stone or a stump, I knew
at once. There was a little tremble run up the stick to
my hand that told me that much. A sort of shake, as

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though you hit an empty barrel, as near as I can tell
you. I'd a turtle down in the mud, and concluded to
bring it out into the daylight. There's more than one
way to do this, but none of 'em is an easy job to get
through with. I kept probin' 'round him, to try and
make out where his head was, and then I could feel for
his tail, and pull him out. Now this does very well for
one of your common snappers, but didn't work so easy in
this case. I could sort of feel that turtle all over the
meadow. Wherever I put my cane down, I seemed to
come to his back shell ; but after edgin' out a bit for some
time I could make out the rim of it, and I tell you he was
a whopper, accordin' to my probin'. That turtle seemed
about as big 'round as a wash-tub, and I got regularly
worked up about him. I wasn't in trim for huntin', but
didn't care. I'd found a turtle that was worth havin', and
I meant to have him. Probin' showed he was about
three feet deep in the mud, but I made up my mind to
locate his tail and then reach down for him. So I did,
but it was no use. I felt about, and got one ugly scratch
from a hind foot, but he kept his tail out of reach, or
hadn't any ; I didn't know which, then. After thinkin'
a spell, I concluded I'd try to get a pry under him, and
went for a fence-rail. It took me 6ome time to get what
I wanted, and when I got back that turtle had got out.
I probed all 'round, but he'd moved. This rather took
me down, but I kept up my hunt, and after a bit found
he'd moved straight for the main ditch, and was tearin'
up the mud on the bottom as he went. This was all
that saved him for me, and I no sooner learned his
whereabouts than I went for him in earnest. I ran the
rail I had right under him, and tried to lift him up.
Thunder and lightnin', boy, you might as well try to lift a
steer. I disturbed him, though, and checked his course a

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bit. Jammin' the rail down again, I guess I hit his head,
for it riled him, evidently, and he raised right up. His
head and neck came up out of the sand, and I was for
standin' back just then. If ever you saw a wicked eye,
that turtle had one, and his head was as big as my fist.
Stickin' his head out, though, gave me the knowledge I
wanted. I knew how he laid in the mud, and I ran my
rail down under him as far as I could. It kept him
from divin' down, and I went right into the ditch to try
and get a hold on his tail if I could. This I did, after
f eelin' for it a bit, and no sooner had I got a good grip on
it than the old fellow got free of the rail and commenced
goin' deep into the mud. I tugged and he dug, and it
was a clear case of 4 pull Dick, pull devil ' between us.
He was gettin' the better of me, though, for I was gettin'
chilled in that water, and had nearly lost my hold, when
the turtle gave an extra jerk, and if it hadn't been for
the fence-rail I'd a lost him. I was pulled forward, but
the rail was right in front, so I put one foot on it, to
keep from sinkin' any deeper in the mire. This bracin'
gave me the advantage now, and I put all my strength to
it. The turtle came a little, and I seemed to gain strength.
I tugged and tugged with all my might, and presently
his hind feet showed. You see, he hadn't firm enough
mud to hold on to. I backed slowly across the ditch
when I got him in open water, and got a fair f ootin' on
the ditch-bank at last. Still, I wasn't out of the woods by
a long shot. That turtle weighed close onto seventy
pounds, and I'd no means of handlin' him. Chilled
through, with both hands needed to hold him, and in the
middle of the mucky meadow, all that was left me was
to try and drag him to the high, smooth meadows. It
was a tough job, I tell you. I had to walk backward,
and he pulled against me like a frightened horse. I

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gained a little, slowly, and after a bit got on the high
ground. Then I felt more at ease and took a rest. I
couldn't take him home, of course, in the same fashion,
but I had a chance to let him loose, and rest my hands.
How I looked 'round for a bit of rope to bridle him ! It
was no use, though, and after all I was likely to lose him
altogether. After a minute's thinkin', it occurred to me
I'd make a hobble out of my shirt and then slip home
lively for the right sort of tackle. I wasn't long in get-
tin' the shirt off, and I twisted it into a sort of rope and
hobbled him with it. It was a desperate, odd-lookin' tur-
tle when I got through, and I laughed at him a bit as I
turned toward the house. Tou see, I left him on his
back, and his legs -"bound so he couldn't use 'em to turn
over. I skipped pretty lively, I tell you, for that mile or
so twixt me and home, and was in a good glow^ when I
got in. Hettie looked kind o' scared when she saw me,
but I put her mind to rest in two words, and soon was on
my way back. A bit of rope and my sheath-knife was
all I needed. I skipped over the fields pretty lively, and
was soon again in sight. Now, I don't think it was an
hour, by some minutes, before I was back on the high
meadow, but, by gracious ! it don't take long for scenes
to change in natur' any more than it does in a theatre.
Of all queer sights, that was the funniest I saw when I
got back. The turtle had got half free of my old red
shirt, and was pawin' the air like mad, tryin' to get on
his feet again. I could see that much a long way off, and
put on extra speed ; but when I was about fifty yards off
I stopped short. There was that turtle wrapped in my
shirt, and a pesky skunk sort of standin' guard over him.
Now, I hate skunks. They don't pay to trap, and they
rob my hen-roost every winter. I was afraid to frighten
him, too, for fear he'd spoil my snapper, and I wanted

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the value of a shirt out of the turtle, if nothin' more. I
walked a bit nearer, to make sure of how matters stood,
and it was clear as day, the skunk thought he had a good
thing of it, if he could only kill that snapper. I thought
the same way, and didn't want to be bettered by a pesky
skunk. I made up my mind to jockey about it, a little ;
and so, first, heaved a stone at the critter. It gave me a
look and started on a slow trot, but it was all up with me,
sure enough. He shook that thunderin' old brush right
at the turtle and well ! if he didn't sicken the snap-
per, he did me, that's certain. I stood the racket a bit,
though, and tried to move the snapper, but it was no use ;
I couldn't keep at it long enough to do anything, and
don't believe it would have amounted to much any-
how. I got a stick and put the snapper on his feet, as
well as I could, without touchin' him, and he waddled
off for the mucky meadow, with most of my shirt still
stickin' to him, and plunged into the ditch as soon as he

"So you lost the turtle after all," I remarked in a
low tone, not feeling sure I had heard the last of the

" No I didn't either," Uz replied quickly. " Don't set
me down for such a fool as that. I knew well enough
the turtle wouldn't wander far, so I kept him in mind,
and the next April I went out in proper trim and
hunted him up. I found him after two days' huntin',
when I got a dozen big ones besides, but he was the king
of the lot. He couldn't turn 'round in a wash-tub, and
weighed somethin' over seventy pounds. I looked all
over him for some sign of my shirt, but there wasn't a
thread left."

" How old do you suppose he was ? " I asked, when
Uz had concluded his story.

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"Fin not sure I can say, but he was no chicken, that's

"According to Professor Agassiz, a turtle a foot long
is close to fifty years old," I replied.

" Fifty years old ! Then my big snapper came out of
the ark, I guess," remarked Uz.

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Were this a fitting opportunity, I should be glad
to give in detail the scores of marvelous snake-stories
which from time to time have been related in my hear-
ing, or which I have clipped from newspapers. These
stories have not come solely from ignorant and supersti-
tious people, but they have been told fully as often by
those who were well informed on other subjects, and who
would be considered people of average intelligence and

The prevalent absurd accounts of our common snakes
show what an amount of ignorance prevails concerning a
class of animals whose undoubted merits should be prop-
erly understood and appreciated.

My aim, therefore, in referring to them, is to break
down, if possible, long-established prejudices. It is, per-
haps, a hopeless task, a kicking against the pricks, but I
shall not desist.

Unfortunately for the snakes, and for ourselves too,
we grow up so imbued with unjust suspicions of all
creeping things that, in later years, but few of us seem
disposed to listen to the plain truth concerning the habits
and capabilities of these most interesting and generally

Online LibraryCharles C[onrad] AbbottA naturalist's rambles about home → online text (page 20 of 36)