Turtle Talk
Inside the Outdoors, June 26
, 2015

One species I never gave much thought to before coming to Latrobe is the turtle. After settling in our residence on Ligonier St., many people used to come into my store and tell me about the hometown gossip of snappers. I went to not knowing or seeing them to discovering these four-legged, hard-shelled critters somewhere along the Loyalhanna Creek when I went fishing.

Just recently, I was talking to a fellow from our fair city, and he brought to my attention that there is a second species of turtle in our midst. Instead of just putting the alleged information in this column, I decided to do a little investigation and see what we may have in our locale.

There are five water turtles listed on the Pennsylvania Fish and Boat Commission websites. They are the snapping, painted, stinkpot, map and red-eared slider turtles.

For a child to state to his parents, maybe while playing in the sand or on the stones just off a path in Legion Keener Park in Latrobe, “Hey look, what is that thing?” I’ve heard city youth respond that way when it comes to cattle. Their first adventure into the great outdoors may bring a great deal of curiosity.

Some folks may respond, “That’s a turtle, Stanley” and leave it at that. But wonder if the child would pursue his questioning. “Tell me more about it, Daddy?” What would he say?

Parents, this is your chance to get educated. “Absorb” the information.

“The snapping turtle is the oldest living reptile having evolved more than 200 million years ago,” so stated Andrew L. Shiels from an article published by the PFBC titled The Snapping Turtle under the section, Pennsylvania Amphibians and Reptiles.

Continuing, “They are found on every continent except Antarctica.”

What characterization does one see when coming upon this outdoor survivor? Its shell, of course. A snapper’s outer casing is designed by shape, color and pattern. This is how biologists pinpoint their identification. The top, known as the carapace, may vary from tan, brown and olive to black. The bottom shell or the plastron is yellowish to tan and greatly reduced in size.

Such is as the present; most turtles are active from April to October. The remainder portion of the year they will be hibernating in burrows, mud, the stream beds, ponds or under piles of vegetation.

Most of us would love to take on the schedule of a snapper. “Normal activities include basking in the sun, foraging for food and resting.” Again, he goes on to state, “Most are nocturnal, active at night.”

Foods may include insects, fish, small mammals, carrion, berries, aquatic vegetation and plants.

Snapping turtles are larger compared to other state species. The head has massive jaws. Its bite is fierce and if provoked, will cause bodily injury particularly to fingers. “The common snapper,” according to Shiels, “has a long tail with three triangular plates. Males usually have longer tails than females,” he said.

Weights vary. When I moved to Latrobe, I was told that according to the Latrobe legend, there were once close to one-half dozen snappers close to 100 years-old living in Pig Iron weighing as much as 100 pounds each. A youth shot them, wiping out these mammoth beasts, so I learned.

Shiels stated they prefer slow moving water. The once famous fishing spot, Vulcan Hole, known for great trout fishing, is now the home of a massive amount of snappers, so I was advised by a “grapevine” informant.

If ever given the chance, try some snapper soup. It’s great eating with a capitol “G.”

Next on the list is the painted turtle. Observed sunning itself on a log jutting out of the water, such a sight can be evidenced at Pig Iron behind Legion Keener Park along Creekside Path. Colored black with smooth flattened shells, they can grow up to nine inches long. Around the edges of the top of carapace (top shell) can be found red markings. The plastron (bottom shell) is yellow.

Looking closely, one can see that there are yellow and red stripes on their necks, legs and tails.

One is bound to find these creatures in the slow moving streams of Westmoreland County, as well as marshes, lakes, ponds and marshes.

Here is an interesting note. The sex of the turtles is decided by temperature. If the nest temp is very warm, expect a female, otherwise a male.

These turtles hibernate all winter.

The stinkpot species is the state’s only musk truth. It spends most of its time in the water. Thus, it is not often seen. If disturbed, this turtle will produce a foul-smelling fluid, which is one reason it is called a “stinkpot.”

Although it is small, it is said to have a short temper and strong bite.

Best to respect these critters, wouldn’t you say?

- Paul J. Volkmann
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