Rigor Vitae: Life Unyielding

Thursday, June 01, 2006


I live in the most turtle-free state of the lower 48. To the ecologically distinct Virgin River drainage of Utah's extreme southwest corner, a small population of native Desert Tortoises (Gopherus agasizii) manages to cling, while Spiny Softshell Turtles (Apalone spiniferus), introduced a century ago, bask on the Virgin's banks. Aside from that, Utah's recorded modern turtle fauna is limited to a few Western Painted Turtles (Chrysemys picta belli) collected from Lake Powell, and almost certainly introduced. Despite this, or maybe because of it, I've always felt a bit of special fondness for turtles, the one group of reptiles that no one seems to revile--that is, if you consider them reptiles at all. In their 2002 Standard Common and Current Scientific Names for North American Amphibians, Turtles, Reptiles & Crocodilians, Collins and Taggart proposed giving them a class of their own. Despite a radically modified body plan, where the shoulders and hips have wound up inside the ribcage, most turtles have a charming look about them, like a friendly, if mildly insane old geezer. Only in a few cases do turtles take on an actual monsterish countenance, and in North America, those cases are dominated by the Snapping Turtles. Most spectacularly monsterish of all is the Alligator Snapping Turtle (Macrochelys=Macroclemys temminckii), of the Mississippi Drainage. This is one of the biggest freshwater turtle species, sometimes exceeding 200 lbs. in weight. The northern extreme of the Alligator Snapper's distribution is southern Iowa, and the individuals that have been recorded there have all been very large--in fact, the largest on record. It's not certain why this is so, I've had some very unproductive discussions about it with turtle experts. It seems likely to me that older turtles prefer to orient themselves upstream, and upon reaching a certain age, tend to creep north. This species' most prominent feature is its huge head and powerful, hooked beak. I've been taken to task a few times for designing the above painting with a foreshortened turtle, which minimizes this aspect.
The smaller Common Snapping Turtle (Chelydra serpentina) is found throughout the U.S. east of the Rockies, and Southeastern Canada, south through Central America to Ecuador. A smaller creature than the Alligator Snapper, its maximum recorded carapace length is about 18". The largest one I've ever caught is the 16" South Carolina individual posing with me in the picture. When I was twelve I caught a 12" Common Snapper that someone had let lose in a Utah pond. I transferred him to a smaller pond behind a friend's house where he eventually failed to rouse from his third hibernation there. Normally, reproduction is the main focus of male snappers coming out of hibernation, and after twice awaking 800 miles from the nearest female, my "Herbie" probably just decided to call it quits.
My friend Cole (I rarely call him that) didn't live the turtle-impoverished childhood that I did. He's lived his life in Upstate New York, where turtle life is fairly rich, and he often calls me to rub my nose in the fact that he's caught another snapper in his driveway. Not only is he a marvelous artist, he's a keen observer of nature and a lucky dog. While wandering aimlessly about the New York backwoods, he recently happened upon this pair of male snappers fighting. The males establish fairly rigid territories, and tend not to wander from them, so a sight like this is fairly rare, as far as I know. One of these big males, I assume, still groggy from a long upstate winter, wandered into another's territory. Cole said the reptiles (apologies to Collins & Taggart)allowed him to walk right up to them, and continued to fight for about an hour. He told me he took a lot of pictures, but he's stringing me along, sending me one every couple of days.
upper: OPTIMISM--ALLIGATOR SNAPPING TURTLE & PIG FROG (1995) acrylic 20" x 16"
second: Photograph taken near Charleston, South Carolina by Lindsey Fogget, Feb. 2000
lower two: Bitchin' photographs taken near Binghamton, New York by Cole Johnson, May 2006


Anonymous Anonymous said...

Another interesting post...and I DO like turtles.

You'll be happy to know that I stopped traffic yesterday (safely) and removed (carefully) a good-sized male snapper from the edge of the south bound lane of our local major state highway.

For this I received three middle digits, a dozen assorted swear words, and two "way-to-goes". It WAS evening rush hour.

9:08 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Interesting - is there a pattern of large size near the edge of a reptile's range? A record-sized red-sided garter snake was recently found near the edge of that subspecies' range in Manitoba.

12:25 AM  
Blogger Carel Brest van Kempen said...

Carl: Hooray! You didn't only do the turtle a favor, you did the commuters one, too. Those clowns need to slow down and relax a little.
Laura: Interesting indeed. Thanks for the link. I can't imagine that's anything more than coincidence, but I'll give it some more thought. What do you think?

9:28 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Liked the post, and I too have a fondness for snappers (though little first-hand experience, not too surprising given that I live in England). If you have time you might like to see the snapper blogs I produced...


... but I hope that doesn't seem like gratuitous self-promotion.

4:32 PM  
Blogger Carel Brest van Kempen said...

Thanks, and big congratulations to you, Dr. Naish! Please feel free to leave links to your always fascinating blog any time. It's one of the very best.

5:22 PM  
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11:09 PM  

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