What is this hatchling turtle?

Yesterday evening, as Esau the dog and I walked along the road in the last light of the day, we spotted a strange small shape almost under our feet.

hatchling turtle

Tiny turtle on the road

It is a tiny turtle, completely still, on the road.

Its strange eyes make it look almost like a child’s toy dropped carelessly from a stroller. Almost. I have that strange gathering of the insides that I feel when I see an animal unexpectedly. I pick up the little creature to see if it’s alive. It is.

I know it’s generally best to leave baby animals where one finds them. But I can’t leave it on the road.  And does it need water or land? I think it may be a baby snapping turtle, but I’m not sure.  Do snappers live in salty water? Because Mecox Bay is the only water around. It is brackish rather than full salt, as it is only occasionally open to the ocean. Most of the year, it is more like a salt water pond.

mecox bay at sunset

Whichever way you choose, Mecox Bay at sunset is gorgeous.

I bring the little turtle home and leave it on the deck while I go inside to look for a guide book that will help me identify it.

Beach house guide books, accumulated over the decades by family and renters.

There are books on flowers, trees, birds, mammals, sea creatures, sea shells, rocks and stars.  Not a word on reptiles. Well, the sea creature book has sea turtles, but I can tell this little guy doesn’t have a sea turtle’s flippers. So what are some identifying traits of the tiny turtle?

It is about half the size of my thumb.

tiny turtle

Tom Half-a-thumb

Or you could say it is probably about the size of silver dollar. Here it is next to a quarter.

Hatchling size

Small turtle.

It has huge, dark eyes. Or rather, the structure that contains the eye is huge and bulging. The eye itself is inside the bulge.

turtle eyes

Eyes like chocolate drops

The shell, or carapace is fairly flat, though rough, and ridged.  The color is a dark, earthy-looking brown. (The first photo, taken with my iPhone in fading light, does not accurately convey the deep mud color.)  The tail is very long and mobile. The little turtle does not seem able to retract fully into its shell.

small turtle

Look at that tail.

It has an impressive set of claws.

baby turtle

Long claws, tiny feet.

I do a quick google search, but find no satisfactory answers. I decide to leave it to make its own way in nature, placing it under a hedge in a protected spot. It just sits there and doesn’t move.

Dear readers, I’m sure some of you can easily identify this little guy for me.  Please leave a comment with your thoughts on what kind of turtle this is, and on what you think I should have done with it.

Explore posts in the same categories: 2012, Fall, In the Country, Seasons, turtles, Wildlife/Natural History

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19 Comments on “What is this hatchling turtle?”

  1. mthew Says:

    I missed this post initially. That serrated edge to the carapace is the give-away. None of our other turtles have those dinosaur-points. Here are a couple shots of ones I’ve come across: baby http://matthewwills.com/2012/06/15/lil-snapper/
    adult http://matthewwills.com/2010/05/08/field-notes-snapping-turtle/


  2. As for identifying the young fellow – other than saying he is adorable I haven’t a clue, Sorry. But what would I have done?I think I would have placed him on the shoulder of the road in whatever direction he seemed to have been travelling. Well, not on the shoulder – further in the brush
    Pra.ying for him.


    • Thanks for the reply! He is a snapper, and I have since found Turtle Rescue of the Hamptons that cares for turtles all over long Island and even, I believe, NYC. The number, in case any readers need it, is 631-779-3737. What they recommend with such a tiny turtle is to put it in a tupperware with a little water and bring it to them. They woul dhave kept it through the winter to give it a headstart, then release it in the spring. They will also come pick up a turtle anywhere on Long Island, if you can’t bring it to them. I’ll be writing a post about them soon.

  3. margot truini Says:

    Yep, baby snapper….very hardy and like Barbara says they are good at figuring out what they need. Good website..:D


  4. I recommend putting it on inaturalist.org and asking for help with the ID

  5. retrieverman Says:

    Yes. It’s a baby snapping turtle. I had one of that size in a fish tank for a few weeks.

  6. Barbara Says:

    Definitely a baby snapper Mel, we used to have lots in Ontario, and they are remarkably hardy – if you leave it where it is and it can dig into the dirt it will likely hibernate there for the winter. They live on all kinds of insects, worms etc… it will find what it needs… late in the season for this wee thing though – boy it’s tiny… amazing that you found it. here is a website that is filled with information – http://www.incredibleworld.ca/index.php/incrediblespecies/snappingturtle
    These creatures are an endangered species in Canada. They are as old as the dinosaurs as a species and cannot hide in their shells the way other turtles do. I’ve never seen one so small but have seen one about two and a half feet across, swimming in a freshwater lake – scared me silly. Good thing they’re shy in the water and swim away fast if approached.
    Hope everyone has fun learning about this little guy –


    • Thanks so much for the informative reply, Barbara, and the link to that amazing video. The little snappers emerging from the eggs look exactly like my little guy. I had no idea snappers were endangered in Canada. I worried that the hatchling needed to be in water, so am relieved to hear you say that it may just dig in and survive the winter. It’s not far at all to the brackish Mecox Bay, but this little guy was so tiny that even a short distance seems like a marathon.

      I looked for it this morning, but can’t find it. Am hoping that means it’s safely ensconced.

  7. Charlotte Says:

    Poor little turtle. I wonder what snapping turtle habitats look like….and if there was one near where you found it. I suppose that would be like looking for a needle in the bay, but (not knowing the area and if it hasn’t moved by tomorrow), I think I would take it back close to where I found it….please keep us up to date!


  8. It does look like a baby snapping turtle, but I am no expert either…

  9. Poon Logan Says:

    Gopher turtle


    • Thank you but I don’t think so, Poon. I believe NY is out of the range of gopher tortoises, which seem to be confined to the south. Also the general look of the gopher – and I admit this is based on a quick google search & a visit to Defenders of Wildlife & – doesn’t seem to match the little hatchling I found. The gopher has a much more domed carapace. The claws of my turtle would certainly make me think of a digger like the gopher turtle, though!


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