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How Long Is A Snapping Turtle’s Neck?

Nature has gifted snapping turtles with long necks, which allows them a wider range of lightning-fast bites for both hunting and defense. So, how long is a snapping turtle’s neck, anyway?

Snapping turtles have necks that may reach lengths of approximately 19 inches – just 1 inch shy of a foot and a half! It’s a pretty impressive length and quite practical for striking out at prey and predators alike. It’s also something that you need to keep in mind if you are handling one that you own or wish to help.

Those long necks mean that the turtle can bite a good distance behind them, which is bad news for animals or people trying to touch their shells. Especially when you consider that adult common snapping turtles have 18-inch upper shell (carapace) lengths in adulthood.

These turtles are surprisingly agile and with that kind of range, they can bite almost anywhere that you can touch them! The only place their heads cannot reach is the tail end of their shell, so be sure to file that little bit of information away in case you ever need to help or handle a snapping turtle.

Today we’re going to explore these turtles and their long necks in a little more depth, starting off by telling you a little more about these chelonians — including how to properly handle them when you need to. That way, long necks or not, you’ll have the knowledge you need to keep things as safe as possible.

The Common Snapping Turtle’s Appearance

Common snapping turtle
If you need to help a snapping turtle across the road, keep a good distance from its head!

Quick Reference

  • Binomial Nomenclature: Chelydra serpentina
  • Adult Mass: 9 to 35 pounds (4 to 16 kg)
  • Adult Carapace Length:8 to 18 inches (20 to 45 cm)
  • Average Adult Carapace Length:11 inches (28.5 cm)
  • Lifespan: 18 to 47 years
  • Conservation Status: Least Concern on IUCN Red List, G5: Secure (NatureServe Status)

The long neck of the snapping turtle generally appears much shorter than it really is, but if you pay attention, you’ll notice the folds on its neck. These will give some idea of just how much reach they have, but don’t test it out – when these turtles feel threatened, they can bite with enough force to sever fingers!

The University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign College of Veterinary Medicine has a great article on their bites that you can read here.

The common snapping turtle is big all on its own and the closely related alligator snapper is considered to be one of the largest freshwater turtles in the world!). It is endemic to North America from Canada all the way to Mexico.

The upper shell (carapace) of a snapping turtle is dark and the color ranges from tan to black. The lower shell (plastron) is light in coloration. This plastron is quite tiny and doesn’t fully protect the turtle. The limbs, neck, and tail are yellowish and the head is blackish.

The snapping turtle reaches a carapace length of 8 to 18 inches (20 to 45 cm), although the average carapace length is about 11 inches (28.5 cm). The average plastron length, by contrast, is approximately 9 inches (22.5 cm).

Apart from a long neck, the snapping turtle also has a long tail and it can be as long as the turtle’s carapace, in some cases.

In terms of weight, the snapping turtle reaches 9 to 35 pounds (4 to 16 kg). The largest snapping turtle is an individual snapper known as Big Snap Daddy, who has a recorded weight of 90 pounds. He is estimated to be about 93 years old, as of 2022.

The largest wild snapping turtle recorded was still pretty big, weighing in at about 75 pounds (34 kg).

Captive snapping turtles are generally larger than wild snapping turtles, as they have easier access to food and are often in danger of becoming obese from this. Adult males are also larger than females, typically weighing up to 22 pounds (10 kg) more than adult females.

As already mentioned, the species is endemic to North America, but we can get a little more specific. The range starts in southeastern Canada, spreading from Alberta to Nova Scotia. The range also extends to Florida and Texas, although they are fairly common throughout North America.

The snapping turtle is normally the largest turtle within the northern portion of its range. In the south, however, the alligator snapping turtle is appreciably larger.

Did you know that some people keep alligator snapping turtles as pets? Find out what they need in our useful care guide!

How to pick up a snapping turtle

Snapping turtle crossing the road
Roads can be deadly if a snapping turtle is unlucky

These long-necked turtles can give you a nasty, lacerating bite if you aren’t careful, so it really pays to know what you are doing. While you might just be trying to help a snapper across the street for its own good, the turtle doesn’t know that, so it’s going to be up to you to use the proper technique.

Let’s take a look at how this is done.

Approach From Behind

It is best to approach the snapping turtle is from behind. If the turtle cannot see you, then you’ll be in a better position to handle it safely. While their claws are large and sharp, the turtle doesn’t use these to hunt or defend itself – so these will be of minimal concern. Females use their claws to dig their nests.

You still need to be wary of the claws, mind you, as the turtle will be trying to run away and you don’t want to be accidentally scratched. Just don’t worry about any offensive claw moves – they simply aren’t designed for that.

Those long necks and the heads attached to them are the main issue here. You may think you are far enough away, but in most cases, the turtle is still quite capable of reaching out and biting you.

When you approach from behind and out of the turtle’s line of sight, this allows you to quickly position yourself to lift it without getting attacked. Try to make as little noise as possible when approaching the turtle, so that you don’t spook it and encourage defensive behavior.

Lift the Snapping Turtle From Behind

Being behind the turtle allows you to lift it from behind while avoiding the head and neck. Now remember – we mentioned that they can have up to 19-inch necks, so DO NOT place your hand near the back or even by the sides. The average snapping turtle will easily be able to reach your hand.

Instead, simply grip it at the back of the upper shell/carapace, right above the back legs, and lift the turtle as if you were lifting a food tray. Lifting the snapper this way allows you to keep your hands safely out of range, just be careful not to forget and move your hands further up the shell.

As you may remember, the snapping turtle has sharp claws, so watch out for those flailing legs. The turtle is very likely going to be alarmed and will struggle once you lift it up, so those hind legs will be moving in its attempts to run away.

To protect yourself from the hind claws, you can wear gloves or use a towel or shirt to protect your arms and hands and we highly suggest that you do so — the claws are sharp and you could still get nasty scratches if you don’t prepare.

Lifting Juveniles

Juveniles are not big – typically less than 5 inches in length — and are best lifted by just one hand. You should hold them from behind with your fingers and thumbs, much like you would a sandwich.

Move The Turtle To A Safe Location

If you do lift a wild turtle, take care that you do not place it in a location that is dangerous for it. Remember, it’s going to be trying to bite you or run away once it’s back on the ground, so keep this in mind as well for your own safety.

Regular handling is NOT something that you should do with wild snapping turtles and should only be done when the turtle is in danger, such as when crossing a road. Vehicular collision is a severe concern for the preservation of the species, so this is really one of the few times you should consider intervening.

Once you’ve picked it up, just carry it to the opposite side of the road which it is facing. Move it ONLY in the direction it was originally facing. While it might be tempting to carry it to a nearby water body, that might not be where it’s headed, and if the turtle has been harmed then it could drown.

Just get it across, in the same direction it was facing before, and quickly move away so the turtle can go about its day as normal. If you simply put it down and remain close, then you might get a bite for your troubles, so be sure to just move it, put it down, and get far away.

Ways Not To Lift A Snapping Turtle

To further drive the lesson of properly handling these turtles home, let’s take a look at some things that you should NOT try when lifting snapping turtles.

Never Lift The Turtle By Its Tail

You may be tempted to lift the turtle by its tail or even other body parts, such as by the back legs, but do NOT do this. If you lift the turtle by its tail you can cause serious spinal injuries to the turtle and if lifted by the legs, the thrashing turtle might also become injured. Stick to the rear of the shell and lift it like a tray.

Never Place Your Hands Near The Head

As you may have already realized, you shouldn’t have your hand anywhere near the turtle’s head if you want to avoid injuries to yourself — and possibly to the turtle, too. Dropping the turtle while trying to dislodge it after it snaps onto you can certainly injure it, so it’s best to avoid this scenario.

Keep your eye on its head and be extra cautious.

Don’t Lift The Turtle Far Above The Ground

Try to keep the turtle as close to the ground as you can. That way, if it manages to thrash enough to get away, it won’t have very far to fall. This is safer for both you and the turtle, so be sure to only lift it a very short distance from the ground.

Still not sure how to do it or just want more information? Check out our guide on how to pick up a snapping turtle when you’re done here!

Other Snapping Turtle Species

The Alligator and Suwanee Snapping Turtle

Alligator snapping turtle
The Alligator snapping turtle is a hard turtle to miss!

Alligator Snapping Turtle

  • Binomial Nomenclature: Macrochelys Temminckii
  • Mass: 154 to 176 lb (70 to 80 kg)
  • Carapace Length: 31.1 to 39.8 inches (79 to 101 cm)
  • Lifespan:  11 to 45 years in the wild
  • Conservation Status: Vulnerable  on IUCN Red List and NatureServe Status
Suwannee Alligator Snapping Turtle Macrochelys suwanniensis by Giff Beaton
Suwannee snapping turtle – Image courtesy of giffbeaton at inaturalist.org

Suwannee Snapping Turtle

  • Binomial Nomenclature: Macrochelys Suwanniensis
  • Conservation Status: G2 (Imperiled) on  NatureServe Status

The alligator snapping turtle lacks the long neck of the common snapping turtle and similarly, the Suwannee snapping turtle also has a shorter neck.

Both the alligator snapper and the Suwannee snapping turtle are crocodilian in appearance. They have spiky shells, with three rows of spiky ridges that run down the back. These spiky shells and their short necks help to easily distinguish them from other types of snapping turtles.

Both of these turtles are quite large, typically weighing in the neighborhood of 154 to 176 lbs (70 to 80 kg). Their carapaces are also dark in color. with coloration being similar to that of the common snapping turtle. The colors range from tan to black.

The Suwannee snapping turtle was once thought to be a subspecies of the alligator snapping turtle, although recently, it has been designated as a separate species of its own. The Suwannee snapper is named after its geographic range, which is restricted to the Suwannee River Basin.

Juvenile Central American turtle on rocks looking at camera (Chelydra rossignonii)
Central American snapping turtle – Image courtesy of sugeydector at Inaturalist.org

Central American Snapping Turtle

  • Binomial Nomenclature: Chelydra Rossignonii
  • Female Carapace Length: 14.6 inches (37 cm)
  • Female Mass: 26.5 lb (12 kg)

The Central American snapping turtle is similar to the common snapping turtle in appearance and it also has a long neck. This turtle is also known as the Yucatan snapping turtle and, as the name suggests, may be reliably found in Central America.

The Central American snapping turtle was once considered to be a species of the common snapping turtle, due to their close resemblance, — physiologically, they are almost identical.

The coloration of the species is similar to that of the common snapping turtle with the color of the shell, and skin ranging from gray to black. This snapper also has a long neck and so it is quite capable of biting unwary animals or people that get too close!

South American Snapping Turtle (Chelydra acutirostris)
South American snapping turtle – Image courtesy of Julietted_ and Inaturalist.org

South American Snapping Turtle

  • Binomial Nomenclature: Chelydra Acutirostris

Physiologically, the South American snapping turtle is similar to the common snapping turtle, right up to that long-reaching neck.

Also called the Ecuadorian snapping turtle, it has a wider range than the name suggests, as it can be found in Ecuador, Colombia, Panama, Costa Rica, El Salvador, Guatemala, Honduras, and Nicaragua.

Frequently Asked Questions

How far can a snapping turtle stretch his neck?

The snapping turtle can stretch its neck up to three-quarters of its body length. For this reason, you should avoid the turtle. You should also learn how to properly lift the turtle if you own one or need to move one.

You don’t want to place your hand near the back or even by the sides as the average snapping turtle WILL be able to reach your hand!

How long is a snapping turtle’s neck in comparison to its shell?

The snapping turtle’s neck may reach a length of 19 inches and this is important to know, as the upper shell is seldom longer than 18 inches.

Of course, the logistics of biting behind them will reduce their striking range, but not by as much as you might like — be very careful and do not handle them if you don’t know the proper method for doing so!

Can a snapping turtle bite me if I hold the middle of its shell?

Yes, a snapping turtle can easily bite you if you attempt to pick it up by the mid-shell. You must only pick them up from the rear portion of their carapace (upper shell), above the hind legs, and then lift them like a dinner tray.

Touching the turtle anywhere closer to its head may result in a nasty bite, so it’s important to ONLY touch the rearmost part of the shell when handling them and to only handle them when the turtle is in danger.

Conclusion

The snapping turtle’s neck can reach a length of about 19 inches and this is so notable, that even the species name includes a reference – serpentina – referring to its long, serpentine neck. This natural adaption helps the species when it hunts, allowing it more flexibility and range when striking.

The long neck also allows it to defend itself when approached, so always be careful when approaching or attempting to lift a snapping turtle. Thanks to its long neck, the odds are that it can and will reach back and bite you if it feels threatened and you’re touching its shell.

When handling is required, such as a scenario where the turtle is trying to cross a dangerous street, just remember that the only part of its body it cannot reach with its head is the back end of the shell above the hind legs.

Lift quickly and not very high, and once you get the turtle to the other side, let it go and quickly move away. Provided that you’re careful and follow our recommended steps, you should be able to help with a minimal chance of getting bitten. Just be wary of that long neck – Nature put it there for a reason!

Curious how the common snapping turtle and alligator snapper compare? Find out more as we explore the similarities and contrasts of both species!

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