Published June 29, 2008, 12:00 AM

Summer means turtles on the move in N.D.

As spring turns to summer, turtles are out and on the move. “They are laying eggs or looking for good places as we speak,” said Patrick Isakson, a nongame biologist for the North Dakota Game and Fish Department.

By: Kim Fundingsland , Associated Press

MINOT, N.D. – As spring turns to summer, turtles are out and on the move.

“They are laying eggs or looking for good places as we speak,” said Patrick Isakson, a nongame biologist for the North Dakota Game and Fish Department.

It is the time of year when turtles are seeking places to lay their eggs, often leading them to make the slow and perilous journey across roads or highways.

The largest turtle found in North Dakota is the common snapping turtle, sometimes big enough to stop traffic and certainly deserving of respect.

A snapping turtle out of water is nothing to be trifled with. Its powerful jaws can easily break finger-sized bones, and snappers can be much more aggressive on land than they are in the water. Mistaking a snapper for a much friendlier painted turtle would be bad news for anyone trying to pick one up.

Snapping turtles have long and powerful claws that they can use for defense. Also, they have a much better range of reach with their neck than does a painted turtle, easily able to reach toward the back portion of their shell and deliver a crunching bite.

Aggressive behavior is necessary because, unlike painted turtles, snapping turtles cannot retract their heads inside their shells for protection.

“Snapping turtles are native to North Dakota and the Upper Midwest,” Isakson said. “They are very prehistoric looking, have been around for a long time and have not changed much since the dinosaurs were here.”

Few predators are known to bother adult snapping turtles, which have been known to have a life span of 30 to 40 years in the wild and reach weights of 60 pounds or more.

They lay clutches of 30 or more eggs in a depression dug in warm soil, cover them up, leave and trust the hatching to the elements. The young are most vulnerable immediately after hatching when they migrate toward nearby water.

“There’s one really unusual thing about snapping turtles,” Isakson said. “The eggs are temperature-dependent. In one temperature range, you’ll get all males and another temperature range all females.”

Male snapping turtles emerge from the nearly golf-ball-sized eggs if the incubation temperature is maintained between 72 degrees and 82 degrees Fahrenheit. More females are hatched if the incubation temperature is higher than 82 or lower than 72.

Young snappers generally emerge from the ground in North Dakota from late August to mid-September.

“Like most reptiles and amphibians, they are very temperature-sensitive. Anything too hot or too cold, and the eggs won’t hatch,” Isakson said.

While snapping turtles are visible at this time of year, they quickly return to their reclusive haunts in muddy and murky water.

“They are one of the more visible turtles when they come out to lay their eggs, but in the water they are fairly sedentary,” Isakson said. “They get to the point where they get moss and algae growing on them because they don’t move around too much.”

Snappers use a combination of natural camouflage and the ability to bury themselves in the mud to wait in ambush for a meal to arrive. They will feed on virtually anything that can be found in a lake or river, dead or alive. Plants also make up a portion of their diet.

Isakson said there have been a couple of instances of snapping turtle die-offs in North Dakota this spring. Because they are so hardy, such deaths are rare and attract the attention of biologists.

“They are an indicator in one aspect,” Isakson said. “A snapping turtle kill is an indication that something is not right with the environment.”

An accurate count of snapping turtles in North Dakota is considered nearly impossible, but the department has collected enough data to list the species as one of “conservation priority.”

“That means there is some merit for watching them a bit more closely,” Isakson said. “There are some concerns with snapping turtles nationwide. It’s a species that we want to keep a better eye on.”

Snapping turtles are covered in the state’s fishing regulations. They can be caught on hook and line only. Fishermen are permitted to keep only two snapping turtles per season.

Copyright © 2008 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. The information contained in the AP News report may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed without the prior written authority of The Associated Press.