By Lisa Shaftel
Back on June 19, 2014, Assistant Farmer Seth Terramane came across a muddy mama snapping turtle nesting in the row of cherry tomatoes. This common snapping turtle lives in the creek or pond on the Sudbury Valley Trustees land next to the farm. She’s nested on the farm in springtime in years past, at least once in the compost pile! It’s astounding how far this mama walks from her aquatic home to lay her eggs.
Seth showed me the nest location, and I put a “nest protector” cage I made out of hardware cloth over it to prevent predators such as possums, racoons and skunks from destroying the eggs. Maybe you saw the cage while you were picking cherry tomatoes?
Snapping turtles nest in May and June in New England; like all turtles, the mama digs a deep spherical hole in the ground with her hind feet and lays her eggs in the hole. Then she covers up the hole with her hind legs and goes back to her home. She never returns to her nest and does not care for her babies. Incubation time for common snapping turtles is typically 80-90 days. Usually, in Massachusetts the eggs hatch in late August to mid-September so the babies have enough time to eat and toughen up before hibernating for the winter.
Mama snapper didn’t know that the cherry tomato plants would grow tall and shade her nest, and the drip line would make it too wet. I had been watching the nest, and by our Fall Festival on Sept. 27 the eggs hadn’t hatched. They were very late. It was the end of tomato season, and the fields were being plowed under. I didn’t want the nest to be destroyed; I figured I’d take the eggs home and try to save them. So I dug up the eggs (43 total!) and brought them home. I made a temporary incubator in a chest cooler and put the eggs in damp vermiculite. The first egg hatched on October 8. Twenty two babies hatched over the following 6 days!
Some of the eggs had grown mold and didn’t hatch–probably too wet near the drip line. Not all of the eggs hatch anyway. It is estimated that only 1 in 20 snapper hatchlings survive to their second birthday. Snapping turtles reach maturity at 8-10 years. They can live for more than 40 years.
I released all of the babies at the water’s edge when they were strong and active at 3 days old during our warm week in mid-October. Their shells were maybe 1 inch in diameter, at most. Truly baby dinosaurs 200 million years in the making.