An orgy down by the river

I was checking things out along the C&O Canal towpath just upstream from Pennyfield lock when I heard a terrific splash. It seemed to come from the lagoon between the canal and the river.

Was it an osprey slamming into the water in pursuit of a fish? Or a beaver sounding a warning with a powerful whack of its tail? Or a leaping carp crashing back into the water?

Then came another splash, followed by a third. This was odd.

More splashes, and I began to realize that something major was happening in that normally placid swath of water. Next to the grass-lined shore on the far side something big rolled up into view and then submerged again. Then in the open water the surface churned and exploded.

I climbed down to take a closer look, and almost at my feet two dark forms left wakes as they circled and then met in another splash.

Action was fast and furious
in the lagoon by the river.

It turned out that this muddy backwater was full of snapping turtles, many of them with shells more than a foot across, with thick necks and powerful legs, splashing, churning, crisscrossing this way and that. It was like an aquatic tank battle.

As you have already guessed, they were mating.

Thank goodness for Google. I stood absorbed by the scene, not noticing that my running shoes were slowly sinking into the swampy grass. Surely I was witnessing yet another of nature’s dramas, but what was the backstory?

A naturalist in former times would have stumbled on such a scene armed only with binoculars, a little notebook, and an expression of wonderment. If he had any questions, he’d be out of luck. Today naturalists have iPhones. In just a few minutes of searching snapping turtle reproduction I had found the following:

  • Snappers will mate from April through to November, although peak time is May and June.
  • While not picky as to mating season, snappers prefer warmer weather to complete their reproductive cycle. For this reason, the female can store the male’s semen in her body for months after mating, only allowing her eggs to be fertilized when the temperatures are just right.
  • Semen storage also enables females to colonize other water bodies where no snapping turtle are currently in residence. Once in her new home, she  fertilizes her eggs with sperm from her long-forgotten mate, and a new colony is born.
  • When ready to lay her 30-60 eggs, the female digs a hole with her hind feet to create a nest. Then she leaves. If raccoons and foxes don’t find the eggs, the hatchlings return to the water. The baby turtles are also vulnerable to predators. But the adults have little to fear except man and his taste for snapping turtle soup.

On this last subject I also checked out Google for turtle soup recipes. Most began with instructions to cut off the creature’s head and then nail the body to a tree by its tail to let it bleed. This is where I would stop reading.

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