Common snappers are big, but alligator snapping turtles are massive – they’re actually the largest freshwater turtles in North America! Weighing up to 176 pounds (80 kg) and with a carapace length of up to 39.8 inches (101 cm), it’s only natural to wonder… Can a snapping turtle kill you?
While it’s theoretically possible, there are no recorded deaths caused by the snapping turtle. Granted, these turtles have sharp beaks and a bite force powerful enough to cleanly bite off a human finger, but they’re not out to kill you… Snapping turtles only bite humans when they feel afraid.
Snapping turtles are more likely to give you a lacerating bite than a severed finger, but even in a worst-case scenario, blood loss from a lost finger would likely be the biggest danger. Without medical attention, that could be life-threatening, but this is your likely worst-case scenario.
Today we’ll explore this subject in a little more detail so that you know more about snapping turtle attacks, important information about their bites and their treatment, and more about the species.
There’s no need to be afraid of snapping turtles — only respectful of their personal space– and we’ll tell you why!
Table of Contents
Can a Snapping Turtle Kill You? On Snapping Turtle Attacks
While there is no hard data on the number of snapping turtle attacks that occur annually, that’s not necessarily such a bad thing. After all, if snapping turtle attacks were common, you can bet that someone would track it!
The truth of the matter is that snapping turtle attacks are very rare and unless someone loses a finger, they’re not likely to be reported except as stories among friends. It makes sense when you think about it — Snapping turtles spend most of their lives in an aquatic environment.
A male snapping turtle might spend all of its life in water, although females are known to regularly go on land when it comes time to nest.
Both males and females may leave the water to move to a new aquatic habitat if it’s absolutely necessary, but barring this, interactions between humans and snapping turtles are rare. In water, despite how fierce these turtles may look, if a human approaches a snapper it will typically swim away.
The snapping turtle is aggressive, however, when on land. Unable to retract into its shell like some other turtles, its head and limbs are generally vulnerable to attacks. So the best defense available to the snapping turtle is a good offense!
Common snapping turtle bites are generally innocuous, although the same cannot be said about the larger alligator snapping turtle. It’s not about bite force, either.
Common snappers bite harder (and we’ll elaborate on that shortly), but the alligator snapper has a hook on its upper and lower beak and is less likely to let go!
Snapping Turtle Bites
Snapping turtles can snap at threats at amazing speeds and this is actually how they got their common name. While most bites are not serious, some are, as their bites are quite powerful.
So what is the bite force of the snapping turtle? The average bite force of the common snapping turtle is around 210 Newtons (47 pound-force), while the bite force of the alligator snapper is around 160 Newtons (36 pound-force).
The bite force of a snapping turtle is nothing compared to that of humans, who have a bite force of 1300 Newtons (292.3 pound-force), but having a sharp beak to apply the bite force to makes a big difference.
Think about a paper cutter and you’ve got a pretty good idea of what it’s like – Even though you aren’t using a lot of pressure to push the handle down, all of the force is focused on the sharp edge of the blade.
With these turtles, it’s on a sharp beak of keratin (the same material your fingernails and hair are made of!). It’s an effective deterrent for potential predators of the snapping turtle and an excellent tool for hunting down dinner, all courtesy of Mother Nature.
Ever wondered how alligator snapping turtle owners take care of these fierce chelonians? Check out our care guide and see!
Treating Snapping Turtle Attacks
While snapping turtle attacks are rare, they do happen, although most bites are innocuous and do not do much damage. There are instances when the bite can be serious, however, and may even require immediate medical attention.
Let’s look at the types of bites and your best way to deal with them.
Bites that do not break the skin
Not all snapping turtle bites are going to break the skin. This is particularly true of common snappers, which are quite a bit smaller than their alligator snapper cousins.
If the bite doesn’t break the skin, simply wash the affected area with soap and warm water, and keep an eye on the wound for the next 24 hours.
If you experience any symptoms of potential infection, such as swelling or pain that doesn’t seem to go away, then it’s best to get your doctor involved for additional treatment.
Superficial Bites that break the skin
A bite may draw a little blood but still count as superficial. For example, a shallow puncture and no lacerations means that you should be able to easily treat the bite. That said, it is still advisable to seek medical attention as the bites can cause a transfer of pathogens.
The problem is that these turtles are aquatic, and so whatever microscopic life is teeming in the water may well be transferred to your body through the bite. Still, there are some steps you can take to clean the wound immediately.
You’ll need some bandages, a clean cloth, and an antibiotic cream such as Neosporin and Polysporin, and here’s what you’ll need to do.
- If you are the one attending to the wound, then start by washing your hands thoroughly with soap and water.
- Apply pressure to the wound. If it is superficial, it should cease bleeding within 10 minutes.
- Clean the wound with clean water first. If you’re at home, run it under a tap for 5 minutes, but if you’re outside then just give it a good rinse. Use a clean cloth or bandage to remove any residual debris.
- Apply your antibiotic ointment to the bite.
- Cover the wound with available bandages. Sometimes it just takes a band aid, but you can wrap it in gauze if the bite is large.
- Change the bandages when they are dirty or at least once a day, whichever comes first.
- Watch out for signs of an infection, such as a painful sensation around the bite, a change in coloration of the wound, swelling, and redness of the area around the wound. If you notice any of these signs, then it’s time to get a qualified medical practitioner involved.
Deep lacerations are examples of serious, potentially life-threatening bites that require immediate attention from a qualified medical professional. Since the doctor won’t magically appear, you’ll need to perform a little basic first aid right away.
Performing First Aid
- Start by laying the person down on their back and keep their legs elevated about 12 inches (30 cm). Their head should not be elevated as well.
- Clean the wound by removing any debris with a clean cloth. Since the wound may be bleeding profusely, this should be done quickly.
- Apply firm pressure to the wound using a clean cloth (or gauze pad). If the cloth becomes bloody, don’t remove it, simply add another cloth and keep applying pressure. At this point, have them keep pressure on the wound and you can contact emergency medical assistance.
Signs That The Bite Is Serious And Requires Immediate Medical Attention
Here are some signs that the bite is severe and will require immediate medical attention:
- If the bite gushes, sprays, or squirts blood, then it is likely that a blood vessel has been torn or severed and you need to seek professional medical attention immediately.
- If the bite breaks a bone, with the phalanx (finger) bone being most common, then you need to seek immediate medical attention.
- If the bite is to the throat, nose, chest, or abdomen.
- If the victim has difficulty breathing, irregular or rapid breathing, or dizziness, then they will need medical assistance right away.
Wondering what else you can do if a snapping turtle bites you? When you’re done here, check out this great article from Forest Wildlife – it’s a good and informative read!
About Snapping Turtles
Snapping turtles are species that belong to the taxonomic family Chelydridae. They are large turtles — with weights ranging from 8.8 to 176 lbs (4 to 80 kg) and carapace lengths ranging from 10 to 39.8 inches (25 to 101 cm).
There are two main types of snapping turtles Chelydra (the common snapper) and Macrochelys (the alligator snapper).
The genus Chelydra includes the common snapper (C. Serpentina), the South American snapper (C. Acutirostris), and the Central American snapper (C. Rossignonii).
The genus Macrochelys includes the alligator snapper (M. Temminckii) and the Suwannee snapper (M. suwanniensis) which used to be considered a subspecies of the alligator snapper (M. Temminckii).
Alligator snappers are massive and are considered one of the largest freshwater turtles in North America. They are also one of the most recognizable turtles around. The scutes on the back of the alligator snapper form into three spiky ridges, giving it an appearance much like a plated dinosaur known as Ankylosaurus.
The ridges diminish as they age, although they still look quite fierce. These turtles also have massive heads, which has earned them the nickname of ‘loggerhead turtles’ in some circles.
The Suwannee snapping turtle also known as the Suwannee alligator snapping turtle is similar in appearance to the alligator snapping turtle. The Suwannee alligator snapper is endemic to the Suwannee River System of Florida and Atlanta.
The common snapping turtle is smaller than the alligator snapping turtle and has a long neck which allows it to reach back and bite those that touch the shell! Said shell is rough-looking, with 3 rows of scutes that will diminish over time until the snapper’s shell is almost smooth.
These turtles are endemic to North America from southern Canada to the southern United States.
The common snapper is also closely related to the South American snapper and the Central American snapper. The three are close enough in appearance that were once considered the same species!
Chelydra snappers turtles are omnivorous, while Macrochelys like the alligator snapper are predominantly carnivorous. Both types of snappers are opportunistic feeders and scavengers, feeding on fish, invertebrates, small mammals, birds, amphibians, reptiles, and carrion.
They also eat vegetation (Chelydras more so than Macrochelys), and they even devour small alligators and a large volume of other turtles!
Want to learn more about snapping turtles and their diets? Click here when you’re done!
Frequently Asked Questions
Can a snapping turtle hurt you?
Yes, a snapping turtle can definitely hurt you, as they have sharp jaws and an impressive bite force. These two factors coupled together allow the snapping turtle to cause serious injuries, but the good news is that this is easily avoidable.
Snapping turtles only bite when they feel threatened, so if you give them their space, then you’re guaranteed not to be on the receiving end of their trademark ‘snap’.
Can a snapping turtle break bones?
The snapping turtle can cleanly cut through phalanges (finger bones), but with larger bones, they are not likely to break them.
The turtle hunts aquatic animals as well as small reptiles, mammals, and birds, so their jaws are suited for breaking the bones of small to medium-sized prey.
Can a snapping turtle really bite your finger off?
Yes, the snapping turtle is quite capable of biting a human finger clean off. For instance, a 15-year-old boy in Louisiana lost the index finger of his left hand to a snapping turtle.
The teen tried to move the turtle to get a better picture of it, and the frightened turtle struck his hand, cleanly severing the index finger!
Can you touch a snapping turtle?
Snappers are dangerous and the long neck of the common snapper makes it extra difficult and dangerous to pick up these turtles. Even when held by the sides, the turtle can still easily reach you.
As such, only experienced handlers should try to lift or touch a snapping turtle – otherwise, you might lose a finger for your troubles!
The snapping turtle gets its name from its tendency to snap at people who approach it. Their bites are serious and may create lacerations, and they have the potential to cleanly sever fingers. That said, there have been no reports of snapping turtles killing a human — they’re just trying to scare you off.
Snapping turtles avoid humans whenever possible, but if you corner one then there is a good chance that it will snap at you. Don’t worry, however, as there’s an easy way to avoid trouble. Just give the turtle a respectful amount of space and it will be more than happy to go its merry way!