How to Hold a Snapping Turtle

You must be extremely careful when holding snapping turtles. They have surprisingly long necks, allowing them to reach (and snap) helpful hands on their back, sides, or underside.

If you live in snapping turtle territory, it’s wise to learn how to pick up a snapping turtle before you encounter one!

Most snappers rarely leave the water, but people sometimes catch hatchlings and adult females on dry land.

Common snapping turtles are more widespread with higher populations. You’re more likely to encounter this species. They’re smaller, lighter, and less defensive.

Alligator snapping turtles live in a limited range within the United States. They’re larger, heavier, and more defensive.

In either case, the most critical takeaway is to handle the turtle by the back of the shell on top (carapace). Try to avoid the back legs, as well – their claws are sharp!

Whether it’s a common snapping turtle or an alligator snapping turtle, keep reading to learn the ins and outs of how to pick up a snapping turtle.

In Short

  • Snappers have a dangerous bite
  • Never try to catch turtles in water
  • Keep the turtle’s head pointed away from your body and as far away from you as possible
  • Snapping turtles often cross the road when looking for or leaving their nests
  • Keep your hands near the rear quarter of the turtle’s body, near its hind legs and tail

How to Identify Common Snapping Turtles

Location:

  • North America
    • As far North as Manitoba, Canada
    • As far South as Florida
    • As far West as New Mexico
    • As far East as Nova Scotia, Canada

Size:

  • Hatchlings: 1.5″ Shell Length
  • Adults: 9-20″ Shell Length

Shell Appearance: 

common snapping turtle
This common snapping turtle has the typical smooth, rounded shell of an adult.
  • Dark brown, green, gray, or black
  • May be covered in green algae and pond vegetation
  • Hatchlings: Three distinct, keeled ridges running down the carapace
  • Adults: Keeled ridges flatten as the turtle grows, large common snapping turtles have a smooth and rounded carapace (which is another name for the turtles’ shells)

Tail Length:

  • Roughly as long as the turtle’s carapace, doubling its overall length
    • Snappers are easy to distinguish from any other native turtle species by the length of their tail.

Beak Shape:

  • Rounded, U-shaped lower jaw
  • Round upper jaw with small hooked tip

How to Identify Alligator Snapping Turtles

Location:

  • United States
    • As far North as central Illinois
    • As far South as northern Florida
    • As far West as eastern Texas
    • As far East as the Florida Atlantic coast

Size:

  • Hatchlings: 2″ Carapace Length
  • Adults: 12-32″ Carapace Length

Shell Appearance:

  • Overall rough, pointy texture
  • Dark brown, green, gray, or black
  • May be covered in green algae and pond vegetation
  • Three distinct keeled ridges running down the length of the carapace. Prominent even in adults.

Tail Length:

  • Roughly as long as the turtle’s carapace, doubling its overall length
  • Snappers are easy to distinguish from any other native turtle species by the length of their tail.

Beak Shape:

  • Triangular
  • Top jaw has a significant hook at the tip

Mouth Lure:

alligator snapping turtle's pink, fleshy mouth lure
Here, you can see the alligator snapping turtle’s pink, fleshy mouth lure – and their ridged, spiky shell.
  • Used to catch prey
  • Resembles a worm
  • Pink, fleshy appendage
  • Only visible when the turtle opens its mouth

How to Pick up a Baby Snapping Turtle

Step 1: Safely Approach the Turtle

If you found the turtle on the road, check both directions for oncoming traffic.

In wilderness areas, check the site for other hazards, such as dangerous wildlife and toxic plants.

Note the direction the turtle is walking in. Baby snappers instinctively know which way the water is!

It’s preferable to approach the baby snapping turtle from the side or from behind. If it becomes spooked, it will flee in the same direction it was initially heading.

Don’t worry; they’re not very fast! You can catch it – but be sure to pick up your pace before traffic comes.

It’s normal for snappers to hiss if they see you approaching.

Step 2: Grasp the Back of the Turtle’s Shell With Two Fingers

You can pick hatchling snappers up with a pinching grasp.

Position your thumb on the underside of the snapping turtle, between its hind legs. 

baby snapping turtle
How NOT to hold a snapping turtle: this baby snapping turtle might be able to reach around and bite those fingers. Luckily, baby snapping turtle bites aren’t severe.

Position your pointer finger on the back of the turtle’s carapace near its tail base.

Generally speaking, you won’t encounter juvenile snappers outside of the water.

In captive situations, or situations where you may need to remove mid-sized turtles to a new location, use more fingers on the bottom.

You can place two, three, or even four fingers on the turtle’s underside – however many fingers you need to support its weight.

Be sure to keep your fingers near the turtle’s rear legs and tail! Their necks are surprisingly long.

Step 3: Lift the Turtle

Lifting is a fairly straightforward task for baby and juvenile snappers.

Use common sense. Keep the turtle’s head away from your face, torso, or any other part of your body.

Ensure you have a firm grasp on the turtle. Their carapace and skin can be slippery when wet.

They may also be able to scratch your hand with the claws on their back legs. The scratching may be uncomfortable but shouldn’t cause any significant injuries.

Step 4: Inspect the Turtle for Injuries

When snapping turtles are babies, it’s most convenient to inspect them for injuries while you’re holding them. They’re not very heavy, so you don’t have to worry about tiring out.

Particularly if you found the hatchling on the road, check it over for any cracks or breaks in the shell. Wildlife rehabbers are often capable of repairing these types of injuries.

If you’re holding your pet snapping turtle, this is a great time to give it a physical health inspection.

You should do so at least once a month. Once a week is even better if your turtle tolerates it. Check for:

  • Injuries
  • Skeletal deformities
  • Abnormal lumps or bumps
  • Discharge from eyes, ears, nostrils, mouth
  • Noisy breathing (clicking, rasping, rattling, wheezing)

Step 5: Gently Put the Turtle Down

If you’re moving a snapping turtle in the wild, make your way in the direction that it was initially going.

Once you’ve reached a safe spot to release it, gently put the snapping turtle down in the grass or water. Don’t drop it or throw it.

Alternatively, gently place it in a plastic carrier if it needs rehabilitation or back into its enclosure if it’s a pet.

How to Pick up a Large Snapping Turtle

Step 1: Safely Approach the Turtle From Behind

If you found the turtle on the road, check both directions for oncoming traffic.

In wilderness areas, check the site for other hazards, such as dangerous wildlife and toxic plants.

Note the direction the turtle is going. Adult snapping turtles instinctively know which way they need to go for their mission!

While you’re evaluating the situation and approaching, give the turtle a quick visual once-over to check for significant injuries.

If it’s injured, prepare to take it to a wildlife rehabilitation center.

Approach the snapping turtle from behind. If it becomes spooked, it will flee in the same direction it was initially heading.

Don’t worry; they’re not very fast! You can catch it – but be sure to pick up your pace before traffic comes.

If you’re in front of it, it could lunge towards you and snap your legs or feetouch!

Step 2: Grab the Back of the Turtle’s Shell With Both Hands

To pick up a large snapping turtle, place one hand on each side of the back of the turtle’s carapace above its back legs.

Pay close attention to those back legs, too. A clever snapping turtle may try to hook you with its rear claws to kick your hands away.

Ensure you have a good grip before trying to lift the turtle. 

Adult snapping turtles' shells
Adult snapping turtles’ shells are often wet and slippery from algae and other pond vegetation.

Their carapace is likely slimy from algae and water. Adult snapping turtles are also surprisingly strong and heavy.

Step 3: Lift the Turtle

Lift the turtle enough to avoid dragging its body on the ground, but keep it low.

In the worst-case scenario, if the turtle escapes your grasp, you don’t want it to fall a long distance.

Once you’ve lifted the snapper enough for ground clearance, hustle to the safest location in the direction that it was going.

Step 4: Gently Put the Turtle Down

Once you and the turtle are in the safe and predetermined destination, quickly but gently lay it on the ground, in the carrier, or its enclosure, and back away.

Leave the turtle alone so that you don’t spook it anymore.

Gravid females that become nervous will sometimes retain their eggs and die from subsequent infections if they feel there’s nowhere safe to lay their eggs.

How to Hold a Snapping Turtle

In the unlikely event that you need to hold a snapping turtle rather than carry a snapping turtle, the best practice is to hold it in the same way that you would pick it up:

…By gripping the rear ¼ of the turtle’s carapace, near the back legs.

If the turtle is too heavy, scratching you, or struggling too much, you can try propping its underside on your knee, near its tail and hind legs.

a tame baby snapping turtle
If you’re handling a tame baby snapping turtle, you could let it walk on you with a hand-over-hand motion.

Keep its head pointed away from you and far away.

Whether you’re holding alligator snapping turtles or common snapping turtles, you’ll want to keep the handling to a minimum – for your safety and the turtle’s stress level.

How and Where to Safely Move a Snapping Turtle

When you’re walking a snapping turtle to a safe location, be sure to:

  • Move quickly
  • Keep its body low
  • Maintain a firm grip
  • Be wary of sharp claws
  • Keep its head pointed away from your body
  • Under any and all circumstances, do not:
    • Grab and lift the turtle by its back legs or tail
    • Place your hands on the front ¾ of the turtle’s body (top, bottom, or sides)

If the snapper is just crossing the road, move it off the road to a grassy patch in the same direction that it was going.

If you need to transport a snapping turtle in a car, put it in a rigid, plastic container with tall sides. Totes, buckets, and dog crates are acceptable options. 

safely handling and transporting a snapping turtle in fishing net
If you have one handy, a fishing net can allow you to safely handle and transport a snapping turtle from one location to another.

Snapping turtles can and will climb and clamber around if they aren’t properly contained.

If the snapper is injured, drive it to your local wildlife rehabilitation center.

Why Did the Snapping Turtle Cross the Road?

People typically find hatchling snapping turtles when the little ones make the journey from their nest to the body of water that they’ll live in.

Most snapper hatchlings don’t survive this journey.

They’re frequently scooped up by predators or crushed by vehicles. Unfortunately, roadside embankments seem like perfect nesting sites to gravid (pregnant) mamas.

Adult snapping turtles out of the water are usually gravid females looking for somewhere to lay their eggs.

Alternatively, they may be going back to the water after laying their eggs.

Can You Pick up a Snapping Turtle by Its Tail?

No, never pick up any turtle by its tail.

Given the length of their tails and the danger of their bites, it might seem logical to pick snappers up by their tails.

Unfortunately, lifting a turtle by its tail can result in severe spinal damage, subsequently killing or disabling the animal you intended to save.

How Powerful Is a Snapping Turtle’s Bite?

People often exaggerate the snapper’s “powerful jaws” and strength.

Alligator snapping turtles bite with 158 N of force.

Common snapping turtles bite with 208 N of force.

The strongest turtles, Common Toad-Headed Turtles, bite with 432 N of force.

For comparison purposes, humans can bite with 200 to 600 newtons (N) of force between their second molars.

Despite how low those numbers may seem, there have been reports of snapping turtles biting off people’s fingers. Stay safe!

Do Baby Snapping Turtles Bite?

Baby snappers absolutely DO bite.

Luckily, when these turtles are small, their bites aren’t capable of inflicting severe injuries. Still, it’s probably painful, and you’d be wise to avoid the bitey end of any snapper.

Have you ever been bitten by a snapper? Tell us about your experience in the comment section.

Leave a Comment