You probably know that the snapping turtle is omnivorous but when you get right down to it, what do snapping turtles eat? From wild snapping turtles lurking in natural habitats to pet snapping turtles in home aquariums, their diet is fascinating and diverse.
Wild snapping turtles, known for their strong jaws and large head, are opportunistic omnivores who consume a varied diet including reptiles, small fish, dead animals, small alligators, snakes, and other turtles, and small mammals such as rodents, opossums, raccoons, armadillos and of course some leafy greens. Birds are also part of their menu, as are amphibians, frogs, fish, mollusks, water birds, invertebrates (like snails and worms), and carrion.
They also eat a lot of aquatic vegetation to ensure they get all the vitamins and minerals needed to thrive.
In their natural habitats, ranging from fresh water in the United States to brackish water in Nova Scotia, these turtles showcase adaptability in their diet.
As pets, you can offer them any meat such as pork, chicken, and beef and plant matter such as aquatic plants (like frogbit, spike rush, water hyacinth, and anacharis), dandelion greens, collard greens, and romaine lettuce.
There’s a little more to it, of course, so today we’re going to talk about the two most common types of snapping turtles — the common and the alligator snapper – and tell you more about their diets both in the wild and in captivity.
If you’re ready, then let’s take a closer look at snapping turtles and what you need to know about their diets!
Table of Contents
What Do Common Snapping Turtles Eat?
The common snapping turtle is the most common snapper you’ll see, and so the name is a pretty apt one! These turtles are considerably smaller than the alligator snapping turtle, but look quite similar to both the Central American and the South American snapping turtles.
While little is known of the Central American and South American snapping turtles, it is safe to assume that the diets of these chelonians are similar to that of the common snapper.
Diet in the Wild
When it comes to dinnertime, the common snapping turtle has quite a few options. Adult snappers, particularly those in the shallow water of rivers and ponds, often use their long necks and powerful jaws to catch live food, including occasional small mammals and large fish.
They do pretty well as ambush predators, hiding in the muck at the bottom of the river and attacking and eating anything they can swallow. This is a surprisingly long list — They hunt small mammals, birds that venture into their aquatic habitat, and reptiles such as other turtles and snakes.
Amphibians, such as frogs are also considered tasty, and fish and other invertebrates that get too close are also quite likely to end up as a snapper’s snack.
They have been known to occasionally hunt waterfowl and are considered detrimental to breeding operations, as they can grab the birds and drag them underneath the water to consume at their leisure!
They also feed on a large amount of aquatic vegetation and prefer habitats with an abundance of delicious greens to help supplement their diets.
Diet in Captivity
As omnivores, snapping turtles in captivity should be offered a mix of plant and animal matter. Some plants that you might offer include water hyacinth, water lettuce, and duckweed. Animal matter you can offer includes earthworms (and other types of worms), crayfish, and other freshwater fish.
For pet snapping turtles, a balanced diet that may include raw meat from pet stores is essential to prevent health problems.
Fish are a big part of your turtle’s diet, but try to avoid goldfish — they aren’t a very healthy option as we’ll explain shortly!
Common snappers are scavengers and do not mind dead fish and animals, but some easy live options you can get from the pet store include feeder fish such as crappies, guppies, bluegills, mosquito fish, and several others.
Since the turtle isn’t a picky eater, other foods you can try to keep their diet interesting include mollusks, shrimp, snails, superworms, krill, locusts, mealworms, dubia roaches, earthworms, crickets, bloodworms, blackworms, redworms, sow worms, wax worms, and crayfish.
Some other plans to offer include water lentils and watercress, but check with your pet store to see what they have – these turtles can enjoy a wide range of plants and they’re sure to have some good ones in stock.
You can also offer some human favorites like dandelion leaves and flowers, chicory, collard greens, romaine lettuce, red leaf lettuce, parsley, mustard greens, mustard spinach, cilantro, endive, hibiscus leaves and flowers, turnip greens, swiss chard, and several others.
The best plants to offer are those that are dark green in color, as opposed to leafy vegetables that are light green.
Did you know that you can offer pellets from an automatic feeder for your snapping turtles? Find out more when you’re done here!
Commercially Produced Foods
You can also offer commercially produced foods and they come highly recommended. These foods are specially formulated to contain all the necessary nutrients for an aquatic turtle. Some of these commercially produced foods include Mazuri Aquatic Turtle Diet, Zoo Med Natural Aquatic Turtle Food, and Reptomin Floating Food Sticks.
Other alternatives to commercially produced turtle food are catfish and trout pellets but just be sure not to give your turtle a ‘pellet only’ diet – just like people, turtles like a little variety in their diet, and a mixed diet helps to ensure that they look forward to every meal!
Foods to Avoid
Not all foods are good for the snapping turtle, even though these are opportunistic feeders. For instance, some fish are dangerous for them to eat, such as bony fish or fish high in thiaminase. There are also aquatic plants that are toxic, and most human foods are high in fats or low in nutritional value!
Some fish to avoid include gizzard shad, bullhead catfish, carp, buckeye shiners, spottail shiners, and fathead minnows. These fish are bony and as such bad to offer. Avoid goldfish, too, as they contain high levels of thiaminase.
Some foods that are toxic to turtles that should be avoided include poison ivy, avocado leaves, skin, and seeds, potato stems, roots, and leaves, tobacco, and tomato leaves.
This isn’t a comprehensive list and there are many other food items out there that are poisonous to the turtle, so if you aren’t certain if something is edible, be sure to research it online to make sure that it’s safe.
Try to avoid offering human foods, such as biscuits, cookies, cakes, pastries, pasta, bread, corned beef, sausages, and other processed human foods, sugar, and foods containing processed sugar such as candies, dairy foods, and fatty foods.
Your turtle might like them, but obesity and diabetes are both health risks that you’ll need to worry about if your turtle is not getting a healthy diet. If you absolutely MUST share, then just be disciplined enough to keep portions very small and make it a ‘once a month’ thing.
This will be MUCH better for your turtle, despite what they might try to tell you to the contrary!
Turtles require a strict feeding schedule and the snapping turtle is no different. Unlike most other turtles, snappers eat quite a lot. This can make them expensive to keep.
You should feed baby snapping turtles and juveniles (any individual below the age of 6 months) twice every day. Individuals above the age of 6 months should be fed once every two days.
Similar to most aquatic turtles, snappers eat in water, but due to their aggressive nature you shouldn’t try to move them to a new container to feed them. While you can do that with most turtles to avoid creating a mess within the enclosure, snappers are likely to give you a bite for your troubles so this is best avoided.
As far as quantities, allow the turtle to eat as much as it can for 10 to 15 minutes. Once it is done eating, remove any uneaten food from the water with a net an dispose of it properly.
If your turtle is becoming obese, then try reducing the amount of food or even better, check with your vet to see what they recommend. It might not be the amount of food, but rather the food itself, and your vet can give you some great pointers to help slim your turtle down to a healthy weight.
Supplement the food offered with calcium supplement three times a week for adults and daily for hatchlings. Multivitamin supplements should also be given once a week and this will help ensure that the turtle is getting all their vitamins and minerals.
Keep feedings regular, like clockwork, and this will help to ensure that your turtle doesn’t end up over or underweight. Obesity is the biggest risk, since we love feeding our turtles and it’s easy to spoil them, but try to avoid this for their health – you’ll both be much happier in the long run.
Aside from this, just be sure to offer a wide variety of plant and animal matter and as long as their diet is both interesting and healthy, your turtle should thrive!
What Do Alligator Snapping Turtles Eat?
Similar to the common snapping turtle, the alligator snapping turtle is also found in North America, but looks much more fierce!
The alligator snapping turtle has a short neck and the carapace is more rugged, featuring three rows of spikes that run down its bach, a hooked beak, and a tongue that looks like a worm. That tongue actually lures fish right into the alligator snapper’s mouth, a little trick courtesy of Mother Nature!
This large snapping turtle, often found in the muddy bottom of the Mississippi River and even in the Gulf of Mexico, feeds on a variety of prey due to its unique hunting abilities.
Unlike the common snapper, they are predominantly carnivorous. Although it does feed on aquatic vegetation from time to time, these turtles prefer the bulk of their diet to be animal matter.
Let’s take a look at their diet in the wild vs. a captive alligator snapper’s diet so you can see what we mean.
Diet in the Wild
The alligator snapping turtle is an opportunistic feeder and as such, eats whatever it can find or grab. This includes live prey as well as carrion and as a general rule, if the turtle can fit something into its mouth, it will probably try to eat it.
Live foods that they enjoy include amphibians, mollusks, fish, and carrion. In addition to this, they also feed on smaller turtles, small alligators, water birds, crawfish, snakes, and invertebrates such as worms and insects.
We mentioned smaller turtles on that list and we weren’t kidding – About 80 percent of alligator snapping turtles sampled in Louisiana study were found to have turtles in their stomachs. That fierce shell isn’t for show — these turtles are predators, through and through!
They also prey on small mammals that come close to their habitat or try to swim across the water when the turtle is below them. Some small mammals they feed on include muskrats, nutria, mice, possums, armadillos, and squirrels.
The alligator snapping turtle is a nocturnal reptile and mostly hunts at night. They are ambush hunters, sitting quietly in the mud at the bottom of their habitat, with their mouths wide open. This is where that worm-like tongue comes in.
Used as bait to attract small aquatic animals into the mouth of the snapping turtle, the appendage is pink and small and moves like a worm to attract prey. Once they are close enough, the turtle can quickly snap its beak closed on them, cutting them in half or even swallowing some prey whole.
The alligator snapping turtle also uses a chemoreceptor to hunt prey, although this is a technique mostly used by juveniles. With it, they are able to detect chemosensory cues that fish or other turtles are nearby, and they use this to effectively hunt them down.
Diet in Captivity
The snapping turtle eats the same foods as the common snapping turtle, but the lion’s share of their diet will be meat. They’ll still eat plant matter and you should provide it, but it won’t be as big a part of their diet as the animal matter will be.
Some animal matter that these turtles enjoy include earthworms (and other types of worms), crayfish, and freshwater fish. In an outdoor pond or tank, supplementing their diet with chicken livers, especially in early summer and early morning, can mimic their natural feeding habits.
Offer freshwater fish rather than marine fish – these are freshwater turtles, after all, so this is what Nature has designed them to eat.
Feeder fish are a very affordable option and some good examples you can provide include crappies, guppies, bluegills, and mosquito fish.
Alligator snappers are scavengers and do not mind dead fish and animals, so you can offer dead fish or thawed-out frozen pinky mice. This can be preferable if the snapper is having difficulty catching the live fish.
They also accept other aquatic animals such as snails, worms, shrimp, krills, and other mollusks and crustaceans. They also accept crayfish. You can also offer insects such as locusts, mealworms, dubia roaches, earthworms, crickets, bloodworms, blackworms, redworms, sow worms, and wax worms.
As far as plant matter, you can offer them water lettuce, water lentils, water hyacinth, or watercress – although there are many more edible plants your local pet store can advise you about.
You can also offer some human foods (plants) such as dandelion leaves and flowers, chicory, collard greens, romaine lettuce, red leaf lettuce, parsley, mustard greens, mustard spinach, cilantro, endive, hibiscus leaves and flowers, turnip greens, swiss chard, and several others.
As with common snappers, the best plants to offer alligator snappers are those that are dark green in color, as opposed to leafy vegetables that are light green.
Commercially Produced Foods
As with common snappers, it’s a good idea to offer your alligator snapping turtle a pellet food to help ensure that they’re getting superb nutrition.
The same foods we’ve mentioned earlier for common snapping turtles are great examples and for your convenience, we’re listing them again here. They are Mazuri Aquatic Turtle Diet, Zoo Med Natural Aquatic Turtle Food, and Reptomin Floating Food Sticks.
You can also offer catfish and trout pellets or simply keep them on hand to switch things up every now and again!
Foods to Avoid
Alligator snapping turtles will eat just about ANYTHING that you offer them, so you’re going to need to be very careful what you feed them. Some foods are bad for their health or even toxic, or simply dangerous to eat (like very bony fish).
Human foods should be avoided or at the very least, kept to very small servings as a once-a-month treat.
While they like foods such as biscuits, cookies, cakes, pastries, pasta, bread, and corned beef, sausages, processed human foods have lots of fat and sugar, and could lead to obesity, diabetes, or other health conditions later down the line.
Some fish to avoid include gizzard shad, bullhead catfish, carp, buckeye shiners, spottail shiners, and fathead minnows. These fish are bony and as such bad to offer. Avoid goldfish as they contain high levels of thiaminase.
Some foods that are toxic to alligator snappers that should be avoided include poison ivy, avocado leaves, skin, and seeds, potato stems, roots, and leaves, tobacco, and tomato leaves. This isn’t a comprehensive list, however, so be sure to look up anything that you’re not sure about.
You can also find some useful information in this article from Chelydra.org!
The feeding schedule of the alligator snapping turtle is similar to that of the common snapping turtle. You should feed baby alligator snappers and juveniles (turtles below the age of 6 months) twice every day. Older turtles should be fed once every two days.
While we mentioned that you shouldn’t move the common snapper to another enclosure for feeding (to keep the water clean), this goes double with alligator snappers – if you do this, you WILL get bitten eventually, so it’s best to feed them in their enclosure and clean with a net when you can.
Allow the alligator snapper to eat as much as it can for approximately 10 to 15 minutes and after that, scoop up the leftovers for disposal once you can get the net near them without it getting snapped.
If the turtle is leaving lots of leftovers, then try reducing the amount of food and after a while, you’ll get a pretty good idea of exactly how much they’ll eat.
Supplement that food with a calcium supplement thrice a week for adults and daily for hatchlings. Also, offer multivitamin supplements once a week. This will help to ensure that your alligator snapper is getting all of the vitamins and minerals that they need to thrive.
Want to learn more about raising alligator snapping turtles? From hatchling to adult, we’ve got you covered with this useful care guide!
Frequently Asked Questions
Can snapping turtles have fruit?
Yes, snapping turtles enjoy fruit, but you’ll need to keep the portions very small and serve them infrequently. While these turtles love a little fruit every now and again, fruits contain too much sugar to be a regular part of the turtle’s diet.
Use fruit as an occasional treat, rather than a regular part of their everyday diet, and then it should be okay.
Can snapping turtles eat chicken?
Yes, snapping turtles can eat chicken in any form – cooked or otherwise. It is best to avoid raw chicken, as you don’t want this in the water, but cooked chicken, or even dead or living chicks may be fed to snapping turtles if you like.
Don’t feed them adult chickens, however, as they are simply too large and most of the meat will go to waste.
Can snapping turtles eat bones?
The Alligator snapper in particular has a hooked beak that easily slices through flesh and bone, but while they will certainly eat bony fish in the wild, it’s still not good for them.
As such, while they technically COULD eat bones, you shouldn’t feed them to your turtle and you should avoid feeder fish that are too bony as well.
In conclusion, whether it’s a large snapping turtle in the southeastern Canada or a small turtle in New York, their diet is incredibly diverse and plays an important role in their ecosystem. Snapping turtles are omnivorous, although the alligator snapper prefers more meat to plant matter in its diet, while the common snapper is about 50/50.
Snappers eat reptiles (like small alligators, snakes, and other turtles), small mammals (such as rodents like mice, mice, opossums, raccoons, and armadillos), birds, amphibians, frogs, fish, mollusks, water birds, invertebrates (like snails, worms), and carrion.
Plants they eat include aquatic vegetation and everyday vegetables that we like to eat, too!
When kept as pets, be sure that your snapper has both plants and animals in their diet, and you can even go with frozen, dead prey if you thaw it out first — they’re opportunistic feeders and as scavengers, they don’t mind dead prey one bit.
Just remember to feed them in their own enclosure, instead of moving them to another one. While some turtles are fine with this, regularly moving a snapper is a good way to put yourself at risk of being on the menu!
That’s all the time that we have for today. Thanks so much for reading and we hope to see you again soon!
Curious to learn more about how common snapping turtles and alligator snappers compare? Check out our comparison of these two when you’ve got a moment!