The Gaping Godzillas of Winter

Like scaly little covered wagons, snappers will travel long distances to stake a new claim. This turtle's travels took him through a hillside blueberry field - far from the nearest water.

Like scaly little covered wagons, snappers will travel long distances to stake a new claim. This turtle’s travels took him through a hillside blueberry field – far from the nearest water.

So the other day I was kicking back, munching Doritos and watching old Godzilla movies, and I began to ponder: “When he’s not battling more malicious monsters with his radiation breath or unintentionally destroying Japan’s coastal cities, where, exactly does Godzilla go?” It’s a reasonable question. Godzilla is boisterous, and big, and widely recognized by Japanese fishermen, and yet he just seems to disappear – sometimes for decades – until some mutated beast or seismic anomaly brings him swimming on back to save the day.

Seven titan-sized villains and half a bag of nacho cheese later, the answer slowly began to reveal itself. Between movies, its seems, the King of the Monsters retreats to the darkest depths of the ocean, where we can assume he does just as he did at the end of the 1967 classic, Son of Godzilla: he hibernates. After defeating the giant spider, of course.

But, if you think about it, which I did, Godzilla can’t really hibernate. He’s got stuff to do. He can’t afford to go comatose down at the bottom of the sea – he’s got to be ready to save the planet! From a biological standpoint, when Godzilla goes on hiatus, it’s most likely more of a extended spa session than a true hibernation. He finds a quiet spot, slathers himself in some therapeutic mud, and chills. Literally. He chills down his metabolic processes, but he still keeps a scaly finger on the pulse of the planet, and one eye on Japan.

There’s a real-life King of the Monsters that lives in my neighborhood, and he does the same thing. My monster is a snapping turtle – a big one. I call him godzilla – with a small “g.” Right now, he’s in the off season: he’s not gorging on aquatic plants or careless sunfish, he’s not defending his muddy realm, and he’s certainly not chasing the ladies. He’s between movies, saving his energy for his spring blockbuster.

To be fair, I don’t know a lot about my godzilla. I’ve only seen him twice. But, as a mad naturalist and a long-time turtle fan, I have seen a lot of snappers. I’ve spotted them from the canoe in August as they periscope their pointy beaks above the surface for a breath. I’ve stopped traffic in June to make sure they make it across the asphalt and on to a sandy spot to lay their eggs. I’ve even seen one in late December, cruising like a four-legged torpedo beneath a couple inches of ice. But now, in the depths of a fickle Maine winter, I can’t be sure what godzilla is up to, but I do know what he’s not doing a lot of: breathing.

Snappers, like other turtles, can’t breathe underwater – at least not in the literal sense. And, while they can lie in wait for a passing frog for nearly an hour on a single breath, they tend to pick their ambush spots in water shallow enough to allow them to stretch their snake-like necks up where they can refresh their oxygen supply. With ribs fused to a rigid shell rather that woven together with flexible cartilage, a turtle’s breathing muscles leverage inhales against the shell and squeeze the air out by drawing the rest of their guts up into their chest. Yeesh. The point is, turtles do their breathing with lungs, just like bullfrogs and beavers and snorkeling naturalists. If they stay under for too long, they drown.

So what happens when the snapping turtle’s world gets sealed beneath a foot-thick slab of ice?

Like true Mainers, the snapping turtles in my neighborhood don’t get ruffled by the approach of winter. They’ve spent the last seven months stocking up on the necessities, they know all the places that stay open after the tourists leave, and they come equipped with impressively sturdy four-wheel drive. They’re ready. Unlike the local woodchucks, who sleep away the entire ski season, or wood frogs, whose bodies literally freeze solid in their little hollows beneath the duff, snapping turtles make the most of the shoulder seasons, creeping around beneath the last of the open water or even cruising for food beneath the ice. But when Father Winter really starts to bluster, snapping turtles calmly settle in.

Dropping temperatures slow the turtles’ metabolic processes (they are cold-blooded after all) and they scope out a choice spot to hunker down in the mud. Their dialed-down metabolic rate means their need for oxygen decreases, but, even when their body temperature drops to near freezing, they still still need oxygen to feed the chemical reactions of life. As I sit here writing, sipping tea and breathing, little-g godzilla is out there – below the ice, and the water, and the mud – burning oxygen and staying alive by pushing his anvil-shaped noggin out of the mud and yawning.

Yes, that is what I said: he stays alive by yawning. Exposing his cottony-white maw to his icebound world, godzilla floods his mouth and throat with chilly pond water, holding the pose indefinitely as dissolved oxygen diffuses across the delicate membranes and into his blood. With more than 40 million years to perfect its overwintering tool kit, Chelydra serpentine has evolved the capacity to passively “breathe” through the lining of its mouth and throat, an ability known as extrapulmonary respiration. Call it an overactive imagination, but I can’t get over the image of my neighborhood giant, as big as a trash can lid, bulging from his jagged shell like an man-sized dragon costume stuffed in an kid-sized suitcase, just grinning away at the bottom of his pond. Good times…

Maine winters can be rough, and long, and dissolved oxygen isn’t always abundant on the mucky wallows snappers call home. Sometimes even their extrapulmonary superpowers aren’t enough. As a last-ditch survival mechanism, turtles perform a little biochemical alchemy, shifting their metabolic recipe to oxygen-free ingredients and neutralizing the dangerous lactic acids the new formula produces with carbonates stored in their shells (think bicarbonate of soda versus stomach acid.) Like a disabled Starship Enterprise set adrift in the cold emptiness of space, they are able to reroute power to their life support systems, keeping the physiological lights on until help arrives in the form of a Spring thaw.

As amazing as they are, snapping turtles’ oxygenation abilities represent just a few turns in their incredibly capable coils of DNA. Their unparalleled skills in camouflage, overland travel and omnivory have made them one of the most successful and widespread reptiles in North America. He may not have have the Godzilla’s radiation breath or exceptional victory dance skills (see Invasion of Astro-Monster,) but I’m prepared to admit that my neighborhood godzilla is even cooler than his capital-G namesake, and I’m not the kind of nerd that makes a statement like that lightly.

Direct descendants of a line of armored reptiles that predate the dinosaurs, snappers are the undisputed masters of the swamp. Sure, they may not be the prettiest turtles in the pond. Lumpy and craggy and covered in algae and leeches, snappers aren’t sleek and colorful like your neighborhood painted turtles. Then again, they don’t breath through their butts like painted turtles do… but I guess that’s a subject for another day…

(Check out more of my wildlife photos on Instagram @madnaturalist )

David Munson

About David Munson

Hi. I'm Dave. I've been writing more-or-less professionally for almost twenty years, and I'm a nature nerd. I've been an arborist, a ranch hand, a car salesman and a scientist. I've published journal articles about caterpillar communication and poems about frogs. I've taught biology, ecology, botany, marine science, aquaculture, horticulture and gym. I have trained park rangers to do citizen science and third-graders to make anatomically correct cardboard clams. I've been told I take pretty good pictures, and I've been writing nature articles for the internet since digital cameras took floppy discs. I like to hike, fish and watch B movies, and I keep a collection of bones in my basement, but not in a creepy way. I have a great family and cool friends, and am proud to be a Lincolnvillain (yes, I spelled that right.) You can check out my photos on Instagram @madnaturalist and keep up with my random wanderings on my website at Madnaturalist.com. I can't sing and I can't skate, but I have scratched a white rhinoceros behind the ear and been assaulted by a howler monkey. Mostly I walk in the woods and look under rocks. There is nothing I would like more than to share these experiences with you.