How to Care for Baby Snapping Turtles (Care and Breeding Guide)

Baby snappers may look like cute, adorable little turtle friends at first glance – but don’t let that first impression fool you!

Snapping turtles get big and sometimes even mean. Although they’re aquatic turtles, they won’t fit in a small tank or standard aquarium forever – that’s just snapping turtle facts.

Baby snapping turtles are quite a commitment, and they only make good pets for experienced keepers.

Keep reading to find out about baby snapping turtle care requirements.

Facts at a Glance

Common Name

  1. Alligator Snapping Turtle
  2. Common Snapping Turtle

Scientific Name

  1. Macrochelys temminckii
  2. Chelydra serpentina

Adult Size

Chelydra serpentina:

Carapace (upper shell): 9.8 – 20 in. (24.9 – 50.8 cm)

Weight: 9.9 – 35.3 lbs. (4.5 – 16 kg)

Macrochelys temminckii:

Carapace (upper shell): 13.8 – 31.8 in. (35.1 – 80.8 cm)

Weight: 19 – 176 lbs. (8.6 – 79.8 kg)

Native Range

As far South as Ecuador in South America

As far North as Manitoba, Canada

As far West as New Mexico, United States

As far East as Nova Scotia, Canada

Lifespan

50-100+ Years

Natural Diet

Fish, amphibians, reptiles, waterfowl, crustaceans, small mammals, carrion, and aquatic plants

Natural Habitat

Slow-moving rivers, swamps, ponds, streams, tributaries, estuaries, and wetlands with murky fresh or brackish water.

Do They Make Good Pets?

No (only for experts)

Minimum Enclosure Dimensions

6 inches per 1 inch of shell length

Temperature

75 – 85°F (23.8 – 29.4°C)

What Is a Snapping Turtle?

Snapping turtles are aquatic turtles that live in slow-moving ponds, streams, and lakes. Their preferred natural habitat has dense vegetation and a muddy bottom.

Snapping turtles are omnivorous, but their diet focuses primarily on protein.

Snapping turtles are ambush predators – they sit and wait for live food to pass close enough to CHOMP. Their long necks help them reach prey from far away.

Wild snappers eat fish, smaller wild turtles, small reptiles, aquatic insects, and other small animals.

Snapping turtles also eat carrion (dead animals) when they find it. One fact is certain: snapping turtles don’t make good hunters. They aren’t fast enough.

They’re known for their dinosaur-like appearance and snappy personality. On land, adult snapping turtles won’t hesitate to bite.

In the water, however, they’d rather swim away and avoid confrontation.

Unlike terrestrial box turtles, snappers are so aquatic that they often only come onto land to lay eggs. In the image below, you can see a snapping turtle laying eggs

snapping turtle eggs
Adult snapping turtles usually only leave the water to dig a nest and lay eggs.

Snapping turtle eggs are similar in appearance to other types of turtle eggs. They’re round, white, and leathery. Emerging hatchlings measure roughly two inches long.

Baby Common Snapping Turtle

Common snapping turtles are named after their extensive range in North America.

In Canada, common snapping turtles are native to:

  • Ontario
  • Quebec
  • Manitoba
  • Nova Scotia
  • Saskatchewan
  • New Brunswick

In the United States, common snapping turtles are native to:

  • Florida
  • Georgia
  • South Carolina
  • North Carolina
  • Virginia
  • West Virginia
  • Maryland
  • Delaware
  • New Jersey
  • Pennsylvania
  • New York
  • Massachusetts
  • Connecticut
  • Rhode Island
  • New Hampshire
  • Vermont
  • Maine
  • Ohio
  • Kentucky
  • Tennessee
  • Alabama
  • Mississippi
  • Illinois
  • Indiana
  • Michigan
  • Wisconsin
  • Iowa
  • Minnesota
  • Missouri
  • Arkansas
  • Louisiana
  • Texas
  • Oklahoma
  • Kansas
  • Nebraska
  • South Dakota
  • North Dakota
  • Montana
  • Wyoming
  • Colorado
  • New Mexico

Officials have even found and removed them from the following states:

  • Idaho
  • Alaska
  • Oregon
  • Nevada
  • Arizona
  • California
  • Washington

They’re an established invasive species in some of these states. Other states suspect that the captured individuals were escaped or released pets.

The Central America and South America snapping turtle species are closely related to the common snapping turtle.

As their names imply, they inhabit the more southern regions of the New World.

Baby common snapping turtles hatch in the Fall or even the Winter.

In their most northern ranges, hatchling common snapping turtles will spend their entire first Winter in the nest where they hatched.

In warmer regions, they’ll immediately make their way to the closest body of water.

These little snapping turtles are a perfect food source for other wild animals that come across them.

Baby Alligator Snapping Turtle

The alligator snapping turtle has a much more restricted range, limited to:

  • Texas
  • Illinois
  • Florida
  • Kansas
  • Missouri
  • Georgia
  • Alabama
  • Kentucky
  • Arkansas
  • Louisiana
  • Oklahoma
  • Tennessee
  • Mississippi

Suwannee Snapping Turtles (Macrochelys suwanniensis) are a newly-described species, previously believed to be Macrochelys temminckii. They live in the Suwannee River region of Florida.

The Apalachicola Snapping Turtle (Macrochelys apalachicolae) is a proposed new species that lives in the Apalachicola River in Florida and Georgia.

Both species are closely related to the alligator snapper, and they have overlapping ranges.

While they may hatch tiny, baby alligator snapping turtles grow to a massive size – longer than 32 inches and they can weigh over 175 pounds!

Freshwater Baby Snapping Turtle

The common snapping turtle and alligator snapping turtle are technically species of freshwater baby snapping turtle.

In the wild, both species occasionally pass through or even inhabit areas with brackish water. They must return to bodies of freshwater to rehydrate.

In captivity, it’s best to avoid saltwater altogether. It’s simply the wrong environment for these guys.

Those water conditions offer no health, appearance, or enrichment benefits to your tiny snapping turtle.

What Does a Baby Snapping Turtle Look Like?

Baby snappers look like miniature versions of their adult counterparts.

At first, it may be challenging to differentiate alligator snapping turtles and common snapping turtles.

All young snapping turtles are dark brown, green, or black.

Baby Snapping Turtle, Chelydra serpentina, on his way to the lake.
Baby snapping turtles have particularly long tails. This is one easy way to distinguish them from other turtle species.

They have long pointed tails and fleshy feet with sharp claws.

On alligator snapping turtles, each scute (section) of their shell has a raised osteoderm, creating three raised, spiky rows.

Their beak (mouth) is hooked. From a young age, the alligator snapping turtle will sit in the water with its mouth open.

They have a bright, fleshy appendage that they wriggle to attract prey.

Baby common snapping turtles have a less prehistoric appearance. Their beak is rounded, rather than hooked.

Their shell is somewhat rough, but nothing like the alligator snapping turtle’s. It will smoothen and round out as the common snapping turtle grows and matures. 

two adult snapping turtles
Common Snapping Turtle (Chelydra serpentina) is the largest freshwater turtle in the world.
These adult snapping turtles are a perfect example of the shell difference between an alligator snapping turtle (left) and a common snapping turtle (right).

Pictures of Baby Snapping Turtles

It’s hard to describe an animal’s appearance with only words. You may still be wondering, “What does a baby snapping turtle look like?” Look no further than these adorable photos!

Kid's hand holding a Baby snapping turtle close up

Snapping turtle baby close-up

Snapping turtle baby close-up in grass

Baby snapping turtle on a plain wood

Where to Buy Baby Snapping Turtles

The best source for a pet baby snapping turtle is a knowledgeable and reputable breeder.

Luckily, in the age of the internet, reptile breeders are only a click away. Morph Market, Kingsnake.com, and Fauna Classifieds are popular reptile classified websites.

Be sure to look into the breedersearch forums, Google, and Facebook for positive or negative reviews and experiences.

Ask the breeder any husbandry questions you might have.

Wild-caught baby snappers may be sick, infested with parasites, or just plain stressed. Depending on the species and where they’re collected, their local population may be at risk.

Snapping turtles sold at pet stores are sometimes wild-caught. Even if they’re captive-bred, they’re often subjected to prolonged stress and overcrowded situations.

What Do Baby Snapping Turtles Eat?

The first question many new snapping turtle owners ask is: “What do baby snapping turtles eat?

Wild baby snappers are primarily carnivorous. As they grow and mature, their diet consists of more and more plant matter.

Fresh hatchlings must finish absorbing their yolk sac before they become interested in food. The yolk sac sustains them for at least a week or two.

Don’t stress if your new little snapping turtle doesn’t seem to want to eat. The transportation and change of surroundings are incredibly stressful!

Leave your snapping turtle alone, stay away as much as possible, ensure there are ample hiding opportunities, and ensure that your temperatures are correct (see below).

Eventually, your baby turtle will eat when it’s comfortable and hungry. This may take several weeks.

When your little guy finally starts eating, it’s essential to offer a wide variety of food. Feed as many items from the list as you can.

Doing so will allow you to provide a balanced diet that covers all of your turtle’s nutritional needs.

This advice is crucial to follow because there are some foods—like strawberries—that your turtle may enjoy but are not as nutritious as other options.

Food Options

Protein:

  • Snails
  • Roaches
  • Crickets
  • Crayfish
  • Beef heart
  • Waxworms
  • Earthworms
  • Blood worms
  • Ghost shrimp
  • Butterworms
  • Small rodents
  • Frozen shrimp
  • Shrimp pellets
  • Tubifex worms
  • Small fish, like guppies and minnows
  • Steamed and chopped small fish, chicken, shrimp, frog legs, or fish (about the size of your turtle’s mouth)

Plant Matter:

  • Koi pellets
  • Leftover fruits
  • Aquatic turtle food or turtle pellets
  • Leafy greens like romaine, spinach, red leaf lettuce, etc.

Avoid:

  • Wild insects – Only feed wild insects that you collect from areas you are CERTAIN aren’t treated with fertilizers or pesticides.
  • Iceberg lettuce – This vegetable has barely any nutritional value.
  • Worms sold as fishing bait – Bait worms are often fed or exposed to toxic substances, which can then impact your turtle.
  • Mealworms and super worms – Their hard exoskeletons can cause impaction
  • Goldfish and rosy red minnows – These feeder fish are linked to vitamin B deficiencies.

Amount

Offer the amount of food that would fit inside of your baby snapping turtle’s head. Alternatively, you can offer the amount of food that the turtle can eat in 10-15 minutes.

Frequency

Your baby snapping turtle should eat once or twice a day. The amounts listed above are per day you can split it into two meals or offer it all at one meal.

Between meals, float a leafy green vegetable at the surface of the water.

Most young snapping turtles are uninterested in vegetables, but as long as it’s available, they’ll eventually eat it.

Offer koi pellets that contain wheat germ once a week. Wheat germ pellets help with your turtle’s shell health and scute shedding.

Leave a chunk of cuttlefish bone in the aquarium. Your snapping turtle may nibble on it for additional calcium. Be sure to remove any inedible mounting pieces and sharp edges.

Techniques

Tong-feeding is the most engaging and valuable way to feed your baby snapping turtle.

It may take a while for your pet to become accustomed to your presence and this technique.

Using the tongs, lower the food into the water right next to your snapper’s head.

Tong feeding gives you a chance to get a close look at your turtle and perform a visual wellness check. It’s also an excellent opportunity for bonding and positive interaction.

Otherwise, you may drop the food into your turtle’s aqua terrarium. Commercial pellets and vegetables tend to float, while proteins may float or sink.

Live foods will wiggle and swim – they’re great for encouraging natural hunting behaviors.

Supplements

Dust all feeder insects, boneless meat, and low-calcium vegetables with a reptile calcium supplement.

As long as your baby snapper has access to a UVB light or natural sunlight, use calcium powder without added Vitamin D3.

Optionally, you can also dust your snapper’s food with a reptile multivitamin powder once a week.

Soak the turtle food in a small container filled with water and powdered supplement.

The commercial pellets will absorb the vitamin-infused water. You can then drain them and set them out to dry for future feedings.

Baby Snapping Turtle Habitat and Tank Setup

The rambunctious nature and future large size of baby snappers make setting up a suitable habitat a tricky ordeal.

Our guide will give you a rundown of the basics, but it all comes down to trial and error with your individual pet.

Keep in mind that your adult snapping turtle’s enclosure will need to be so large that they’re better suited to living in a backyard or a large, dedicated room.

Supply List

  • Aquarium water heater
  • Aquarium water test kit
  • Aquarium water conditioner
  • Powerful pond or canister filter
  • Basking heat lamp and lightbulb
  • Basking UVB lamp and lightbulb
  • Basking surface, i.e., large log or shelf
  • A large enclosure that holds water (6″ of floor space per 1″ of shell length)
    • Well-fitted, locking enclosure lid
    • Avoid small tanks (they won’t last long at all)

Enclosure Size and Style

Minimum Enclosure Space: 6″ of floor space per 1″ of shell length

For example, a baby snapping turtle with a four-inch-long shell would require an enclosure with at least two square feet of floor space.

Anything that has the correct dimensions and can hold water makes a suitable enclosure, including:

  • Aquariums
  • Stock tanks
  • Outdoor pond
  • Plastic kiddie pool
  • Plastic storage tubs
  • Preformed pond liners
    Baby snapping turtles are excellent climbers. Be sure to buy or craft a tight-fitting, lockable lid.

The water should only be deep enough for your snapping turtle to touch its back legs on the ground and still reach the surface when fully extending its neck. 

Old alligator snapping turtle
As this adult demonstrates, snapping turtles prefer shallow water. They like to be able to reach the surface with their head while their feet are planted on the ground.

Unless you start with a GIANT enclosure (3’ x 2’ x 1.5’), you’ll need to upgrade as your baby snapper grows.

Lighting

Lighting Cycle: 12 Hours On/12 Hours Off

Utilize a low-output fluorescent bulb that’s specifically designed to supply UVB and proper lighting to reptiles.

Follow manufacturer guidelines regarding bulb placement and replacement frequency.

Most UVB bulbs should sit 12-18″ above the basking spot.

Replace UVB bulbs every six to twelve months. The quality of UVB output declines before the lighting element goes out.

Remember to turn off the lights after 12 hours or install them on an automatic timer. Excessive artificial daytime hours will stress your pet.

Heating

Ideal Daytime Basking Temperature: 80-85°F (26.7-29.4°C)

Ideal Water Temperature: 75-78°F (23.9-25.6°C)

To supply heat, use a light reflector dome with a halogen light bulb.

The UVB and heat lights should cover the same spot in the habitat, known as the basking area.

Baby snapping turtle in a log.
Snapping turtles don’t leave the water to bask often, but this behavior is a little more common in babies.

Always run your heat lamp on a dimmer switch or, preferably, a dimming thermostat. Ensure that the temperature in the habitat doesn’t climb above 85°F.

If needed, heat the water with an aquarium water heater. Ensure that it comes with a built-in guard and thermostat.

Without a thermostat, the heater will bring the water temperature too high.

Again, follow manufacturer guidelines regarding aquarium heater installation. Most heaters require horizontal orientation for the thermostat to function correctly.

Water Quality

Use an aquarium water testing kit to test the water quality every week.

Your tiny baby snapping turtle is especially sensitive to poor aquarium conditions.

Bad water quality and subpar temperatures may eventually result in respiratory infections and other maladies.

Ideal Parameters:

  • Ammonia: 0 ppm
  • Nitrites: 0 ppm
  • Nitrates: <40 ppm
  • pH: 6.5-7

A powerful external canister filter is an absolute must for keeping a snapping turtle’s tank clean. Aim for a filter that’s rated for two to three times the size of the actual aquarium.

Perform water changes whenever the ammonia, nitrites, or nitrates climb too high.

Decor and Environmental Enrichment

Snapping turtles are destructive bulldozers. Most veteran keepers advise against using decorations unless you’re prepared to lose them.

One mandatory piece of aquarium furniture is a hide for your baby snapping turtle. They prefer to have somewhere to retreat when they feel threatened (in addition to their shell!).

If your heart is set on decorating your snapper’s tank, babyhood is the best time to do this. With their small size and shy nature, hatchlings tend to be less destructive.

Keep an eye on your turtle’s behavior and the condition of your decorations.

If you notice that your turtle is munching on something, it’s time to remove it, so it doesn’t cause an impaction.

Some great decoration ideas are:

  • Driftwood
  • PVC pipes
  • Fake plants
  • Live feeder fish
  • Terra cotta pots
  • Live aquatic plants
  • Aquarium decor, i.e., caves

Substrate

Ideal Substrate: Nothing (bare bottom)

Suitable Substrates: Large river rocks, washed play sand

Substrate to Avoid: Aquarium gravel

If you choose to use river rocks, opt for stones at least twice the size of your baby snapper’s head.

You’ll need to upgrade them as your turtle grows unless you start with enormous rocks.

On the other hand, ensure that the rocks aren’t so large and heavy that they could crush and kill your adventurous pet or damage your turtle’s shell.

Aquarium gravel and small pebbles pose a risk for ingestion and subsequent impaction. Impaction is fatal without surgery.

Keep in mind that you’ll need to suction detritus from the substrate at least once a week. An aquarium vacuum will remove debris from between large pebbles.

You must stir and mix sand to clean it. After the sand settles, uneaten food and waste will sit on the top.

Tankmates

Snapping turtles are solitary, predatory creatures. Tiny babies may not injure each other, but problems are likely to arise eventually.

It’s not uncommon for baby turtles to hungrily go for each other’s toes. The moment one baby snapping turtle grows faster and larger than the other, it has the advantage.

We recommend housing your baby snapping turtle alone without any other turtles.

In fact, your turtle is likely to try to eat any other animals in the tank – including fish, amphibians, other reptiles, or snails.

Baby Snapping Turtle Care

In terms of maintenance, baby snapping turtles are relatively low-maintenance pets. Initial habitat setup is the biggest obstacle.

Turtle Snapping turtle photo.  Snapping turtle close-up profile
While your snapping turtle is still young and safe to handle, consider pulling it out to perform a visual health check once a week to once a month.

Daily Maintenance

  • Feed your snapping turtle
  • Clean leftover food after 15 minutes
  • Turn lights on in the morning and off at night
  • Manually check the temperature of the water and the basking spot

Weekly Maintenance

  • Change 25% of the water
  • Test the water parameters
  • Perform a quick physical health check
  • Suction debris from the substrate, if applicable

Veterinary Care

It’s challenging to find a veterinarian that’s willing to treat exotic pets.

Luckily, the Association of Reptile and Amphibian Veterinarians has a “Find a Vet” tool. We advise you to find a reptile-friendly veterinarian before you need one.

Recognizing Illnesses

Sick baby snapping turtles may have:

  • Noisy breathing
  • Little to no growth
  • Little to no appetite
  • Shell abnormalities
  • Swelling of eyelids, ears
  • Sores, wounds, or flakiness
  • Discharge from mouth or nostrils

Baby Snapping Turtle Handling and Bonding Tips

You can handle your baby snapping turtle, but should you? Once your baby grows up, you likely won’t be able to handle or cuddle with it very much – if at all. 

Alligator snapping turtle on white
Even young alligator snappers tend to have an attitude. The larger your baby snapping turtle grows, the more damage it can inflict.

Some captive baby snapping turtles may become habituated to handling over time. Still, they grow into massive beasts with a powerful beak and a dangerous bite.

Handling will pose a significant risk in the future.

For now, if you must handle your baby snapping turtle, always approach it from behind. Its natural instinct is to snap onto anything moving near its mouth – including your fingers!

Lift the turtle by its shell, as close to its back legs as possible. They can reach and snap surprisingly far with their long neck.

As a baby, you may rest it in the palm of your hand once you have it out of the water.

Never try to pick your snapping turtle up by the tail! Doing so can severely injure your pet’s spine.

Tong-feeding is a great way to bond with your pet baby snapping turtle. Consider training turtle-friendly tricks or offering enrichment opportunities, like live feeder fish.

Is a Baby Snapping Turtle Right for YOU?

Baby snapping turtles may not pose much of a hassle for most turtle keepers. Still, babies eventually grow up.

The truth is that baby snappers don’t make the best pets unless you’re genuinely dedicated to this turtle species and its peculiarities.

A small tank won’t work – you’ll need a giant, dedicated enclosure that can keep other small animals out.

Furthermore, can you imagine how much food these 50+ pound beasts consume as adults?!

There are many other types of smaller turtles that won’t pose as much of a danger – or financial investment.

There are also medium-sized tortoise and turtle species that are better suited for life in captivity.

What other kinds of turtles would you like to learn about? Leave a comment and let us know!

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