Backyard Biology

Nature stories from my backyard and beyond

Nature Stories

Is This All There Is?

Monday, October 3, 2011

Is this all there is to life? A growing awareness of self, an untaught urge to scratch through the shell, somehow knowing to dig up to reach the surface, the warmth of the glorious sun, a quick shadow - then oblivion. Surely the young snapping turtle must have hoped for more - if snappers hope for anything at all.

Every June, snapping turtles by the dozens leave the river to crawl the few hundred yards to my back yard. Here they search for the optimal spot to lay their eggs. What their criteria for the optimal spot is, I have no idea. Very often they choose to dig their nests in one of our gardens - usually one we have just planted, of course. However, I have also observed them digging a nest at the top of an eight foot pile of dirt, or in the hard-packed gravel driveway. At any rate, wherever they dig their nest, not an evening goes by before the foxes and raccoons have found the eggs, dug them up, eaten them and left a pile of shells behind.
Of course, some nests will go undetected. This is evidenced by the fact that each September, some baby snappers are seen heading overland to the river. These are the lucky ones, the ones missed by the marauding foxes and raccoons, the ones that were allowed to complete their development and live the life of a turtle. Sometimes I wonder, was it luck, or did the mother snapper somehow have a better idea of what the optimal nesting site consisted of.

baby snapperThese lucky baby snappers must now make their way back to the river - to safety - where they will spend the rest of their lives plying the waters as the terror of the river. Once grown to a size, they have little to fear from predators, feeding on just about anything they can catch. Their diet includes most things found in the river - fish, crayfish, worms, insects, frogs, turtles, birds, snakes - alive or dead, and a good amount of plant material. But before they become the terror of the river, the baby snappers must get there.
The snappers hatching out of nests dug in my garden have a long way to go to reach the safety of the river. A few hundred yard dash for a two inch long turtle is a long dangerous journey. Those baby snappers that were lucky enough to escape predation in the nest must now run an obstacle course overland with just as many dangers, just as many hungry predators.

The red-shouldered hawk was sitting in a tall pine tree, a great vantage point to observe all the goings-on in her domain. With a thrust of the legs and a flap of the wings, she launched herself off the branch and glided down into the little swamp behind my house. I lost sight of red-shouldered hawkher as she descended below the trees. However, a few minutes later up she rose and flew back to her perch. After a brief interval, off she went again, down to the swamp only to return once again. She repeated this maneuver 4 times before finally taking flight and leaving the vicinity - obviously having finished whatever business she had been about.
Now that she was gone, I was able to approach the tree and look for signs of what she had been up to. There, under the tree, were 4 baby snapping turtle shells, dropped by the hawk when all of the digestible material had been eaten. Had she caught them on their way to the river or had she spied them emerging from the nest. If so, was it just happenstance that she had been looking in the right direction when they emerged from the ground or does she have some way of knowing where and when they would hatch, much as the foxes and raccoons had known where to dig for the nests?
The very next day, as I was walking around the gardens, I noticed a hole in the ground and an empty turtle shell laying at the mouth of the hole. Obviously, the hawk had caught the snapper just as it had dug itself up from the ground.

Looking at the shell, I couldn’t help wondering what was going through the mind of the baby snapper at this final moment. Was it thinking, “Is this all there is to life as a turtle? A few months underground, a dig to the surface, a sight of the sun and that’s it?” Surely, whatever the baby snapper had been thinking, it must have been hoping for more out of life. Was it worried about the dangers of the journey it must make to reach the river? Did it even have any concept of “river” and what life would be like when it reached the river? Was it dreaming of future hunts - stalking the insects and worms that would make up its early diet? Or was it not thinking anything - just running on instinct. Knowing without thought that it must reach the river but not knowing or caring why? Of course, I will never know the answers to these questions, for who can know the mind of a turtle. Certainly not me. However, that does not stop me from wondering, and feeling that the turtle must have been just a little disappointed that this is all there is to life.