Natural History

Common snapping turtles are a common inhabitant of brackish, shallow slow moving waterways.  Snappers, as they are often referred as, will also take up residence in deep lakes and rivers.  Snapping turtles are found throughout North America in southern Canada, eastern and central United States, and down through eastern Mexico into northern South America.  Within this territory there are four definitive subspecies.  This species of turtle is extremely hardy and the northern inhabitants are extremely cold tolerant having been seen still active under iced over creeks.  Although they are renowned for their impressive jaw strength and aggressive nature, the snapping turtle is very timid underwater but will become defensive on land.  It is recommended to avoid a snapping turtle out of its aquatic habitat if possible due to their ability to turn and lunge with their impressively long necks to deliver a very painful bite.

This species is renowned for their quick growth and long life of 25-40 years with proper care.  Most of these animals in captivity are from the wild and females in particular become “antsy” during breeding season as they set out to find a suitable nest site.  An interesting piece of American history surrounds this species as snapping turtles were used to locate human remains in creeks, rivers, and lakes by tying string to their leg and waiting for it to stop swimming presumably due to their new found meal.

In 1975, the United States government banned the sale of any chelonian with a carapace (top shell) less than four inches long in hopes of preventing the spread of Salmonella and the destruction of native species in the wild.  With the age of easily accessible information via the World Wide Web, private breeders have been successfully breeding and incubating turtle eggs and now offer their domestically bred chelonians online.  As to the legalities regarding this practice, that is for the government to decide.  Domestically bred turtles are always recommended over their wild caught counterparts.


It is recommended that all new turtles be quarantined away from the rest of the household chelonians for at least 60-90 days.  In this time period the owner can access the animal’s behavior and health status.  Chicago Exotics strongly urges owners to bring these animals in during quarantine for a wellness exam and a fecal evaluation.  Quarantine requires food, dishes, accessories, and cleaning of the chelonian to be done separately from the other chelonians.


The water temperature of the enclosure can be raised using underwater heaters and under tank heaters on a thermostat to keep the water at 75-78°F. Hatchlings should be kept around 78-80° F, however.  Animals from northern portions of the range require the cooler end while animals from the southern portion require the upper end of the temperatures.  A thermometer in the water is highly recommended at the location furthest away from any heat source and one near the heat source.  If a submersible heater is used, it is recommended to place a piece of PVC pipe with several holes drilled into the sides of it over the heater to prevent accidental burns.  A general rule of thumb is a 55 watt water heater will work for a 40 gallon tanks, a 75 watt heater for a 55 gallon tank,

The air temperature in the tank can be easily raised using a basking light or a ceramic heat emitter.  Metal dome clamp lights work well for this.  Under tank heaters can also be utilized.  A thermometer should be place on the opposite side as the basking light and another thermometer placed at the level the chelonian will be while basking.  The ambient (air) temperature should be 80-86° F with the basking site reaching near 90° F.


Snappers are difficult to house due to their fast growth rate and impressive size.  This species loves to swim and explore their enclosures.  Hatchlings can be comfortably kept in a 10-gallon tank or equivalent container.  An 8 inch long juvenile will require a 55-gallon or larger enclosure or similar size plastic tote.  Adults need a 2 foot deep by 4 foot long pond like enclosure.  Larger with this species is always better!  Stock tanks, modified plastic tubs, outdoor ponds, and koi tubs work well.  Remember, bigger is better!  Generally speaking, there should be 6 inches of aquarium floor per every 1 inch of turtle include modified plastic tubs, outdoor ponds, and koi tubs.  With a bit of creativity, enclosure potential is endless!

This species rarely basks outside of the water but they will float to the surface of the water to warm themselves.  Snappers do require a land area where they can haul themselves out of the water completely if desired.  Females are prone to wandering in order to find a suitable site for a nest and may require a larger enclosure or at the very least, a dig box.


With snapping turtles, it is recommended to have a bare bottom tank, one without substrate.  If substrate is desired for enrichment or aesthetic purposes, large gravel that the turtle cannot fit into its mouth can be used.  Weekly agitation (stirring up the stones to give the filters a chance to filter out the debris) and siphoning of the debris.  A word of caution, if substrate is used an under gravel filter is not enough filtration to maintain a clean environment and will need to be supplemented with other filtration devices.  Every 2-4 weeks the rocks should be removed from the tank and scrubbed well with a toothbrush designated for the job and bleach diluted 1:20 with water.


The water for these turtles is important!  These are fresh and brackish water turtles that enjoy swimming.  Only use chlorine free water with an addition of aquarium salt to create a brackish environment with a specific gravity of 1.015-1.018.  A hygrometer and frequent salinity testing is required to maintain the water levels.  Care must be taken to only use aquarium salt and not consumable sea salt or iodized table salt.  Snapping turtles enjoy a mild current in the water which can be created using strong filters or water jets.  Change a third of the water once a week to keep water clean.

Canister filters are recommended by Chicago Exotics for all chelonians.  These filters offer both mechanical and biofiltration and are less stressful to aquatic turtles as there is no mechanical vibration on the tank from the filter body itself.  Fluval, Magnum, and Eheim make excellent filters and there are a few websites that illustrate how to create your own canister filter.  External filtration helps to remove uneaten food and large waste particles as well as agitate surfaces and increase water oxygenation.


As with most reptiles, snapping turtles do well on a light cycle that simulates 12 hours of daylight and 12 hours of darkness.  A high quality UVB bulb such as a 5.0 ReptiSun bulb is recommended for adults and a 10.0 ReptiSun bulb is recommended for hatchlings and young turtles.  These bulbs help the body convert D into D3 which helps the body absorb and metabolize calcium thus preventing the disfiguring and deadly metabolic bone disease which is generally caused by a lack of available calcium in the reptiles’ body.


Enclosure accessories are necessary for enrichment and promotion of healthy behavior patterns.  A hide area provided underwater in the form of a broken flower pot, sturdy and anchored rock structures, or commercially available under water hides are necessary to give the turtle a place to hide from sight.  This promotes a feeling of security and in the case of multiple cage mates, allows each turtle a chance to have some solitary time.  Artificial and real plants are fantastic and offer visual appeal as well as more hiding places.  Live plants may be eaten or uprooted but are enjoyed by snappers. Duckweed, water lettuce, and water hyacinth are easy to keep and find.  Bog wood and rocks are always an excellent addition to a Musk turtle enclosure especially since these turtles like to crawl out of the water on branches to bask occasionally.


Snappers less than 6 months old should be fed twice daily and turtles over 6 months old should be fed once every other day.  These animals must be fed in the water to facilitate swallowing as their tongues are not meant to push food to the back of the mouth for swallowing.  It is recommended to offer as much food as will be consumed in a period of 10-15 minutes to avoid obesity and water fouling from rotting food.  If the water is becoming fouled too quickly and obesity is starting to be a problem the amount of food offered should be decreased.  All food should be sprinkled with a multivitamin once a week and a calcium supplement daily for hatchlings and three times a week for adults.

These turtles are omnivores and will consume fresh water, crayfish, earthworms, pelleted diets, floating duckweed, water lettuce, and water hyacinth in their enclosure.  Likewise, they will nibble on floating leaves of lettuce which also offers them some enrichment.  The key to a healthy turtle is to offer variety in the diet.  Fish (not goldfish) can be offered to snapping turtles but it is preferred they either be slow moving or frozen-thawed as this species is not adept at catching fast moving prey and are more likely to scavenge a dead fish body in the wild rather than catch one in their mouths.  Insects such as earthworms, crickets, and snails should be offered as well as food items such as small crayfish.

Supplementation with commercially produced turtle, trout, or catfish pellets.  Some owners prefer to feed only commercially produced turtle pellet diets, in this case, Chicago Exotics recommends feeding multiple brands of turtle pellets to insure adequate nutrition and offer enrichment through variety and shape difference.

Sources and Recommended Readings

Turtles of the World, Carl H. Ernst and Roger W. Barbour
Turtles of the United States and Canada, Carl H. Ernst, Jeffery E. Lovich, Roger W. Barbour
Keeping and Breeding Freshwater Turtles, Russ Gurley
Aquatic Turtles, David T. Kirkpatrick
Turtles and Tortoises, R. D. Bartlett
Tortoise Trust,