Lakebed Leviathans

by Brandon Eckerd

When you are a kid growing up around the lakes and rivers of eastern Pennsylvania, there is one creature that dwarfs all other life. These colossal animals can grow up to 40 pounds and to the size of a hubcap, if not larger. Their jaws can snap branches and bone like balsa wood. They are camouflaged giants, hiding among the weeds and much of the lakebed. The can snap fishing line, bend hooks and lives for decades. They are the common snapping turtles: Pennsylvania’s resident leviathans.

The common snapping turtle (Chelydra serpentina) is one of two extant snapping turtle species. They are almost fully aquatic, only coming onto land to lay eggs, scavenge on carrion or move between waterways. They have a long neck used to grab air from the surface while keeping the rest of their bodies submerged. Snapping turtles are primarily carnivorous, feeding on fish, frogs, even smaller turtles. However, these river giants find carrion irresistible. A dead deer next to a waterway may have multiple snapping turtles feeding on it. They start their life about the size of a half-dollar, but can grow to great sizes over their decades long lifespan.

Everyone has their own “giant snapper story.” Most of them involve a surprise spotting at the park or accidentally snagging one while fishing. They talk about the turtles being the size of a trashcan lid or with a head bigger than a softball. These are generally gross exaggerations; it is rare for a turtle to surpass 25 pounds these days. I have my own snapper story that might live up to these common hyperboles.

I was walking along the Lehigh canal one summer afternoon. The canal has a booming slider population originating from released pets. During these late summer days, plant growth overruns the canal. Duckweed and lilies obscure the depths from the naked eye. I have always been drawn to waterways due to the multitude of animals that inhabit them, so I was walking as close to the shore as possible in search of frogs and snakes.

I saw it initially out of the corner of my eye: the movement of lilies and rippling of water. A large, brown head emerged from between the surface vegetation. Two ancient eyes stared me down, the hooked edge of its beak barely visible. Its tremendous head had to be the size of a football. It’s shell was colossal, adorn with its own plant growth and aquatic inhabitants. Algae tinted the turtle’s skin green. The reptile looked like a piece of the waterway had became sentient, separated itself from the riverbed and pulling its mammoth body towards the surface. It blinked once, took a deep breath, and submerged into the murky depths below.
Ever since that encounter, I have been enamored with these animals. Snapping turtles are Pennsylvania’s largest reptile and demand tremendous respect. A bite from these animals can easily break finger bones and lacerate your skin. They have been a part of our lakes and rivers long before any human had stepped into Pennsylvania. They are among the last species of an ancient lineage; one that has earned my own admiration and hopefully a greater appreciation from everyone who has encountered their own lakebed leviathan.

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