Baby snappers

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(HOST)Commentator Ted Levin is used to getting calls from neighbors about backyard wildlife, but a call this summer led to a rather unusual rescue effort.

(LEVIN) Last June, I received a call from a friend in Lyme. She needed to move a pile of sand the size of a Volkswagen. Earth moving is not my expertise, but this was not an ordinary pile of sand. It cradled thirty-nine turtle eggs.

Late one night a large, female snapping turtle had lumbered several hundred yards up hill from a cove along the Connecticut River. The turtle had negotiated a jungle of woodland plants, one front yard, and then found what must have appeared to her as a gift from the Chelonian Gods . . . a mound of sand still warm from the previous day’s sun.

Up she climbed, excavated her nest, deposited her clutch, care- fully refilled her hole, and returned to the river, never looking back.

I arrived with a spade and a 15-gallon aquarium and began to work the sand. I uncovered the eggs, round and white like ping-pong balls. I placed them on a bed of sand in the aquarium in the exact position I had found them. If an egg rotated the embryo would smother under the weight of its yolk sac. Then I reburied them, returned home, and set a heat-lamp above the aquarium.

To predict the sex of baby snapping turtles, you need a thermo- meter. The temperature of the nest, two-thirds of the way through the nine to twelve-week incubation, determines the embryo’s sex: eighty-four degrees Fahrenheit or hotter produces females; eighty degrees Fahrenheit or cooler produces males. In between, either sex may develop. Since eggs at the top of the nest are warmer than those at the bottom, mostly females hatch from the top eggs; mostly males from the bottom.

Somehow this arrangement produces a balance of males and fe- males, since snapping turtles have been around for a long time. Relics from the Age of Dinosaurs, they are among the most primi- tive of living reptiles.

The eggs began to hatch Labor Day weekend, one egg a day. Watching a turtle egg hatch is like watching socks dry on a clothes line, you’re never sure of anything until you’ve given up watching and gone to bed.

My boys collected each hatchling and placed it in an aquarium filled with an inch of water. For more than a week the turtles lived off their yoke sac, which protruded slightly from a hairline opening between two central scales along the bottom of their shell. When the yoke sac disappeared, the suture closed, and the hatchlings began to eat tiny earthworms.

William and Jordy brought the turtles to Thetford Elementary School – our only stop on the snapping turtle promotional tour – and then returned them to the river.

When released, each hatchling weighed less than an ounce. If they survive until old age, which is not at all guaranteed – beasts from bull frogs to bass eat baby snappers – they’ll increase in size by a factor of a 1000 – something wet socks never do.

This is Ted Levin of Coyote Hollow in Thetford Ctr.

Ted Levin is a writer and photographer and winner of the 2004 Burroughs Medal for Nature Writing. He spoke from our studio in Norwich.

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