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Caring for a Baby Snapping Turtle

Baby snapping turtles are amazing freshwater fossils that look nothing like other pet turtles. What if you find a baby snapping turtle in a store or in the wild?

Can you care for something like a snapping turtle for its entire life? Let’s talk more about these fascinating animals!

What Does a Baby Snapping Turtle Look Like?

Baby Snapping Turtle

Baby snapping turtles are so interesting because they look absolutely prehistoric! Both common and alligator snapping turtles have a thick, long tail, rugged shell, and a fierce-looking beak. And the plate-like scutes on the back of an alligator snapping turtle are even more impressive!

Snapping turtles also have a tongue lure that they use to coax fish within striking range.

They are well camouflaged to look like mud and decaying leaves. Once a fish comes to investigate the worm-like tongue the jaws snap shut and the snapping turtle has its meal!

How to Take Care of a Baby Turtle

Assuming you understand the risks, legality in your area of keeping one, and long term nature of the commitment, a baby snapping turtle can make for a very interesting pet turtle! Here is a breakdown on how to take care of a baby snapping turtle!

Setting up an Aquarium for a Baby Snapping Turtle

Setting up an aquarium for a baby snapping turtle can be as detailed or basic as you want. These animals only need clean water and a place to sun.

Providing some decorations in the form of fake plants (easy to clean), rocks, and driftwood is also recommended. 

But don’t clutter up the swimming area too much or your snapping turtle will simply knock all of it over as it moves about the aquarium.

Setting Up a Basking Area for Snapping Turtles

One important thing to consider is where your baby snapping turtle is going to leave the water. Having a basking area is something that all turtles need, even mostly aquatic ones like snapping turtles. They may rarely use it but the spot will ensure they have a place to get extra-warm on a chilly day and improve their digestion. 

Some folks who keep snapping turtles find that they rarely use theirs while others will bask all of the time. I recommend erring on the side of safety and providing a more natural habitat for your pets at all times. So give your baby snapping turtle a place to bask!

The light should be a heat lamp kicking out enough thermal radiation for the turtle to bask without overheating. The exact wattage of the bulb depends on how far the basking spot is from the bulb as well as the size of the spread created. So follow the instructions on the back of the bulb when choosing one.

Any turtle basking bulb should also output UVB radiation, which reptiles need for vitamin D3 synthesis. Basking is also critical if your turtle develops fungal or bacterial infections; the UV rays are antimicrobial and the turtle will instinctively bask to seek relief. 

Snapping turtles rarely get unhealthy turtle shell issues like shell rot but it can arise, especially if they have no ability to leave the water.

The basking zone doesn’t need to take up too much space since the turtle may not use it very often. But it should be large enough for the turtle to get most of its body out of the water.

You might also try experimenting with how the basking area is arranged.

Some baby snapping turtles prefer not to leave the water and will bask in a region of shallower water instead.

Baby Snapping Turtle Water Conditions

Baby Snapping Turtle Water Conditions

Baby snapping turtles are very hardy pets and are not fussy when it comes to water conditions. The water temperature should be warmed to around 75℉ and the basking spot should warm them to about 90℉. Make sure any heater in the aquarium is adequately protected. 

A baby snapping turtle is not very strong but as they grow larger they will be able to move things with more force. A submersible heater that shatters can electrocute your turtle so a heater guard is essential for any turtle tank.

Snapping Turtle Tank Maintenance

The main issue to keeping a baby snapping turtle healthy is making sure that the water stays clean. Baby turtles of all kinds were a big health scare in the 1980s and 1990s, in fact, because they became very popular pets to give young children. 

However turtles poop, eat, and do all other business in the water, which creates the perfect conditions for salmonella to thrive. Children were getting salmonella at much higher levels until people realized keeping turtles in filthy conditions was the cause.

Even adult turtles carry salmonella and are very messy pets. So you need to be very careful with not just general maintenance but always washing your hands whenever you do maintenance inside the tank.

Your filter should be top notch – if you’re going to use a filter rated for a fish tank then make sure you are doing at least weekly water changes to compensate. A turtle has a much higher bioload than fish do. 

Plus snapping turtles are carnivores, meaning they create even more waste in the form of ammonia. Any fish tank filter is unlikely to process all of the waste it creates so you’ll need to be proactive about water changes.  

What Do Snapping Turtles Eat?

What Do Snapping Turtles Eat?

Snapping Turtles of all kinds are purely carnivorous animals. They catch fish, small mammals and birds, and even other turtles! They will also feed on carrion, like roadkill and other sources of easy meat. So no vegetables required for your baby snapping turtle!

Baby Turtle Food for Snapping Turtles

Unfortunately pretty much every prepared commercial turtle food cuts their formula with cheap fillers like soy, potato, and wheat. 

If you are looking for baby turtle food then choose a blend that offers as much animal protein in the first three ingredients as possible. We want whole fish, squid, krill, and other animal matter.

If your baby snapping turtle is wild caught it might not even recognize pellets as food since it is used to hunting for its dinner. Instead you should try offering it live prey. Feeder fish like goldfish and rosy reds are a great start. You can also try crickets, hissing cockroaches, earthworms, snails, and other invertebrates for variety!

As the turtle settles into its new home and learns to eat whatever is being offered, start mixing in pellets or even better, pieces of meat. Lean meat like chicken breast, white fish, and shrimp all provide the macro and micronutrients needed in a good baby turtle food. And they are much more convenient to keep fresh than live foods are!

How Long Do Snapping Turtles Live?

As interesting as they are to look at and keep, you need to think very carefully about whether you want to keep a baby snapping turtle. Because these are one pet that will likely outlive you! 

Snapping turtles are sexually mature at around 20 years of age and can live anywhere from 20 to 70 years in captivity. In the wild, they are believed to live as long as 100 to even 200 years of age! A baby snapping turtle is a lifelong commitment to a pet that has jaws strong enough to take fingers if you aren’t careful around it.

Do Snapping Turtles Bite?

Yes they do and their bite is no joke. Snapping turtles get their name from the extreme speed and force of their bite. They are purely carnivorous turtles and will shred just about anything made of flesh. 

A baby snapping turtle bite will still create a good bruise or even a bleeding open wound that may need emergency room treatment. Otherwise you can easily get an infection from bacteria in the turtle’s mouth and the aquarium water. 

A full grown adult alligator snapping turtle can dent metal tools, crush bone, and remove fingers with the force of its bite. Common snapping turtles don’t have quite as much power but being bitten by one is still serious. So always treat these animals with respect, no matter how small they are.

Types of Snapping Turtles

Believe it or not there are actually several species of baby snapping turtle you might encounter. However only two of them are common in the pet trade and in the wild.

Common Snapping Turtle

The Common Snapping Turtle is the species you tend to find more often, both in the wild as well as in the pet trade. They are widely distributed and can be found from Southeastern Canada down to Florida.

Common snapping turtles aren’t as large as alligator snapping turtles but they are still one of the largest freshwater turtles in the world! They can grow up to 75 lbs in the wild but 20-30 lbs is much more common, especially in adult male. Their shells reach 10 to 20 inches in length as adults, though these long-lived animals likely grow slowly their entire lives!

  • Scientific Name: Chelydra serpentina
  • Origin: Central + Eastern North America
  • Shell Length: Up to 20 inches
  • Aquarium Size: 75+ gallons

Alligator Snapping Turtle

The Alligator Snapping Turtle is the even meaner-looking and larger cousin to the common snapping turtle. These are the largest freshwater turtles in North America, growing in excess of 200 lbs with a shell nearly 3 feet long.

Alligator snapping turtles are found exclusively in the Southeastern United States, from Texas to Florida and as far north as southern Indiana.

Sometimes they are also known as the loggerhead snapping turtle due to its rough, bulky head.

  • Scientific Name: Macrochelys temminckii
  • Origin: Southeastern United States
  • Shell Length: 30-36 inches
  • Aquarium Size: 125+ gallons

Finding a Pet Snapping Turtle

Snapping Turtles are not too difficult to find online or even out in the wilderness. Since they don’t care for their young after hatching it is common to find baby snapping turtles in the shallows of streams and lakes. Turtles trying to cross roads are easily caught as well since they are very clumsy and slow while on land.

Be sure to check your local state, provincial, or federal laws as well because common and alligator snapping turtles aren’t legal in every part of the world. In fact, the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service recently proposed adding the Alligator Snapping Turtle to the Endangered Species list. 

This would make collecting, shipping, and buying an Alligator Snapping  Turtle illegal in all 50 U.S. states. Currently the Common Snapping Turtle is not being considered under Endangered Species protection but that could change over time.

Other Frequently Asked Questions about Baby Snapping Turtles

What Do You Do if You Find a Baby Snapping Turtle?

Honestly the best thing to do is to let it go back in the wild. Baby snapping turtles are not helpless nor are they looking for their mother. They are tiny predators that can fend for themselves!

If you find a snapping turtle that is injured and needs treatment, here is a good breakdown by Tufts Wildlife Clinic on how to identify, catch, and transport a snapping turtle!

Can You Keep Baby Snapping Turtles as Pets?

If you are thinking about keeping a baby snapping turtle as a pet, please think and rethink this several times. A snapping turtle is an animal that will live as long as you will. It will grow very large. And it will never be comfortable with you touching it. They are only pets for people in love with extreme animals and understand the risks involved.

Can a Baby Snapping Turtle Hurt You?

While it is unlikely to do more than create a bruise or small puncture a baby snapping turtle has a strong bite. An adult common snapping turtle can do a lot of damage as well while an alligator snapping turtle’s bite can send you to the emergency room!

How Do You Tell if a Baby Turtle is a Snapping Turtle?

Baby snapping turtles have a much longer tail than any other turtle found in North America. They also have a deeply serrated edge to their shells that give them a prehistoric look. And the plastron (shell on baby snapping turtle belly) does not completely cover the entire lower portion of the turtle.

Jason Roberts
About Jason Roberts
Jason is an aquarium fanatic that has been a fish hobbyist for almost three decades.

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