In spring, this pond ripples with the sporadic jolting of tiny gilled salamander larvae. In summer, the pond provides home for mayfly and stonefly larvae. In autumn, birds dip their beaks into the shallow water for a quick drink. But in winter, the pond reveals a mysterious, and perhaps sinister, side.
As we arrived to stand at the edge of the little pond, the cold winter sun angled through the trees highlighting a strange, motionless shape beneath an inch-thick layer of hard ice. The disparate images of a thick, dark head with small dark eyes, clawed feet, and a dark brown, slightly ridged shell reluctantly congealed into a medium, adult common snapping turtle (Chelydra serpentina) in suspended animation. Nearby the image was replicated in miniature: a young snapper, with a shell not even two inches across, frozen in place amongst unmoving air bubbles.
We stood stunned, as motionless as the anomalous objects that had captured our attention. Were the turtles hibernating? Were they dead? I stopped one of the members of our group, bent on arming himself with a stick to prod the static specimen, with a sharp comment. We gawked, and then ran for the camera.
In the end, I don’t know if those two turtles – looking like taxidermic models in a habitat recreation at a natural history museum – were dead or hibernating. According to Brown and Brooks (1994), snapping turtles occupy three types of hibernacula. Usually they are wedged beneath logs or sticks along steams banks or they burrow into the deep mud in marshy areas, but sometimes they remain unburied and visible through the ice. The two snappers may be awaiting the spring thaw, ever-ready for reanimation. I like to think of them this way. Yet, in this state they sit vulnerable to the predations of hungry foxes and raccoons. Is this any better then being air-starved or damaged from deep freezing, never to stir again?
I often hear people wax poetic about returning to a state of nature, as if Nature equates to gentleness, justice and harmony, but Nature is as cruel as it is kind. As humans, we would be remiss to forget that we are a part of Nature, whether we like it or not.
Photos from Pump Station Trail, Eno River State Park, Durham NC (by Nicolette L. Cagle, 23 January 2011)
Brown, G. P. and R. J. Brooks. 1994. Characteristics of and fidelity to hibernacula in northern population of snapping turtles, Chelydra serpentina. Copeia 1994(1): 222-226.
Costanzo, J. P., P. J. Baker and R. E. Lee Jr. 2006. Physiological responses to freezing in hatchlings of freeze-tolerant and -intolerant turtles. Journal of Comparative Physiological Biology 176: 697-707.