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“What We Learned From Two Snapping Turtles” by Philippa Dunne

December 12, 2023

“Snapping turtles evoke impressions of a primitive nature and time, because of their appearance and because they shared the earth with the dinosaurs; they are entitled to regard the brontosaur and the mastodon as brief zoological fads.”*

When I wrote to introduce Hudsonia’s work to Steven Holl’s T-Space team, they immediately grasped the importance of assessing how wildlife is using existing habitats—whether more natural or highly altered—before design begins.

Many of us surely dream of a time when migrating passenger pigeons darkened the fall sky, fields of wild roses bloomed in the sun, and the many species our actions have driven beyond the brink were still among us. But that’s a distraction. We are believed to be entering an extinction crisis, this one of our own making, and must focus on what is working in our altered world. Our best strategy is scientific assessment of how species are using existing habitats, and how we can best manage and conserve those habitats. This has always been central to Hudsonia’s work, and we were delighted to see our standards incorporated into the design process by the ‘T’ Space team.

On our first visit to the property, scarlet tanagers sang in the May woods, and we came upon two large male snapping turtles battling it out in a small pond. Steven asked what landowners can to protect these creatures, and I decided to put together a full answer.

Little did I know that within a couple of weeks, nesting snapping turtles would turn up on our own property to provide guidance.  One morning I encountered two females laying their eggs just five feet from each other, in dirt that we had cleared and prepared for a native garden. Talk about synchronicity—of course they hadn’t set out as pals on an egg-laying expedition, but were following a cycle their own lineage has followed for unknown years.

We don’t even know how long these two females have been building nests on our property. The larger one has an old injury on her shell, which is how we know she was the one laying eggs here in 2018.

Snappers are docile in water, and it’s fun to swim near them to see them blowing bubbles from their defined nostrils. Researchers believe snappers are aggressive, in our terms, on land because, unlike most other turtle species, they cannot fully retract into their shells—their hissing and lashing out is their defense.

These two were too busy to hiss, and we watched them from a respectful distance, struck by their powerful hind legs digging and then covering the nests. I left for a few minutes, thinking I would follow them to the pond on my return, but they were gone. Not without a trace though— the two rocky nests were obvious, as was a tail track left by one turtle.

When in doubt, email Erik Kiviat, Hudsonia’s renowned turtle specialist! Erik suggested we cover the nests with protective cages—I always knew there was a use for dish-racks—and if it became very hot to throw on some grass cuttings to shelter the eggs. Turtles have an unusually high level of nest predation, exacerbated by our unwitting support of predators like raccoons, adding to their survival woes. During the summer drought I added the nests to our minimal watering routine.

In early October, four hatchlings appeared, heading down the path to nearby water. Writing about the many turtle species facing extinction, legendary naturalist John Behler notes that turtles saw the “great dinosaurs come and go,” and our own snapping turtles were swimming with the dinosaurs here in the Hudson Valley about 90 million years ago. Snapping turtles are currently considered abundant, unlike the three regional species—the wood, Blanding’s, and tiny bog turtle—that are threatened or critically endangered. As conservationists often say, the time to protect species is when they are abundant. (Please visit Hudsonia’s website for information on protecting these species, especially from farm accidents.)

We now keep the area where the two females nested free of weeds—and no verdant plantings either!—anticipating their return. Early last June we saw the larger female drifting in the pond, and on June 9th we encountered the smaller one right by the house, shuffling around in compacted gravel.

I was disappointed by her choice. Digging was tough, and if she chose that spot, deliveries would be risky. And my feelings were hurt—I had been confident I had done a good job replicating the nesting site. Soon I was delighted to find the snapper had moved to the dirt we had tended for her, securing my future as a real estate agent specializing in snapping turtles. I joked with the ‘T’ Space team that perhaps I now understood some of the painful moments in architecture, when the client rebuffs your best efforts for a plan of their own making you understand to be inferior.

In Biology of the Snapping Turtle, Drs. Finkler and Kolbe write that hatchlings must begin problem solving, safely finding food and water, the minute they emerge from their eggs. Survival chances for the tiny turtles are slim as they traverse the sedge meadow to make their way to the headwater stream that flows by, or to the neighbor’s pond, and while it’s beautiful to imagine them growing in their shells, and to see them emerge in fall, I will admit to lying awake at night wondering how they are faring. As the winter season was turning, I had asked Erik if there is any scientifically approved assistance we could offer, and he suggested that it’s OK to carry a hatchling to an appropriate nearby body of water, a wonderful gift around the winter solstice.

Last week we had that opportunity. Bob found a hatchling making its way down the cardboard trail we use to suppress aggressive agricultural grasses. It seems the problem solving was going well— it’s a much faster route. Lea, a Hudsonia field scientist, joked on a visit that they might even slide down after a rain. New research conducted by Canadian ecologist Claudia Lacroix, who writes that she makes a living sticking microphones into snapping turtle nests, shows that hatchlings start chattering when still in their eggs. There’s some thought that it’s easier for them to get through soil if they all move together. In the two prior years we saw the hatchlings moving down the path on the same day, if not together, but this year we found only one.

There is a small fishfree pond on our property that seems to provide a safe breeding spot for many amphibians. Bullfrogs have yet to move in, so we set the tiny creature in the nearby grass. This turtle, frozen by our presence, suddenly turned to look toward the water. I myself turned, and when I looked back it had disappeared into the rushes.

Sometimes less is more. Take your cue from what you see, ask a scientist, park your car in a different spot, and love that big patch of dirt where you once imagined a river of flowers. You can add some basking rocks and dig a hibernaculum for snakes in your turtle garden: open dirt is used for nesting by bees and other pollinators too, so you’re supporting more species than you know.

*Gilbert, B. 1993. The reptile that stakes its survival on snap decisions. Smithsonian 24:93-99.

Philippa writes about socioeconomic and ecological issues, and is well known for her understanding of the dangers of “narrative economics.” She is honored to be on ‘T’ Space’s advisory board to promote the importance of valuing the habitats you have before design and construction begin. Although not a scientist, she is affiliated with Hudsonia, the long-standing ecological research institute operating out of the Bard College Field Station. The ‘T’ Space team joined Hudsonia’s spring eel count at the mouth of Sawkill last spring. Please join us next spring!

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