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  • Sara Webley

Shelly the Magical Snapper

Shelly the snapping turtle is a mysterious, magical friend in my middle grade nature-fantasy Zo in the Roosting Tree. Shelly plays games with Rufus and Zo, acting like a boat to take the birds across the lake when they win games of Dropoff. And Shelly understands the magic of the Switch.

Why did I choose a snapping turtle to help with Zo’s magic? Simple. Because I love turtles.

When I was a zookeeper at Boston’s Franklin Park Zoo, I worked with herpetologist Joe Martinez. Joe taught me so, so much about reptiles and amphibians. And the more I learned about them, the more I loved them. My coworker Joe was like a favorite teacher in school. Do you feel that you learned more from your favorite teacher?

Some people are scared of snappers because they’re so big—say, 30 lbs—and because, well, look at them: powerful hooked jaws, huge claws, a tail covered with bony plates, and a rough shell.

I chose a misunderstood animal, the snapping turtle, to guide the magic of the Switch. And I chose the misunderstood—even hated—crow for my birdy star Zo. I wanted people to appreciate, even love these animals. So for my back cover, I asked my talented illustrator, Robin Prisland, to draw Shelly the snapper next to a bunch of sweet daisies.

Snapping turtles live in slow-moving water that has a sandy or muddy bottom: lakes, streams, rivers, ponds, bogs, marshes, creeks, swamps. Snappers are omnivores, meaning they eat lots of different things: plants, worms, fish, frogs, snakes, birds, crayfish, small turtles and mammals, and dead animals. Adult turtles often hang quietly in the water, and then use their powerful jaws and long necks to surprise and grab their prey.

Here in New England, snappers lay their eggs in May and June. To do this, they may cross roads to reach the best places for snapper egg-laying: well-drained, exposed sunny ground like fields, roadsides, or sandbanks.

But this puts them in danger from passing cars. If you see a snapping turtle crossing the road, stop and wait for it to get across. If you need to keep it safe by helping it along, then use a broom or shovel to nudge it across the road or into a box that you can carry across. Always move a snapper in the same direction it was headed! If you take it back to the other side of the road where it came from, the snapper will just cross again. These turtles know where they’re going!

Never pick up a snapper. They have strong jaws, a mouth like a bony beak, and surprisingly long necks that reach farther than you’d think. And never, ever try to pick up a snapper by the tail, because you may injure it.

The snapping turtle family, called Chelydridae, hasn’t changed much in the past 90 million years. Snappers were around during the time of the dinosaurs. I think this makes them fascinating. I mean, why do you think people like Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles so much?

For another snapping turtle, check out Minn of the Mississippi by Holling Clancy Holling. It also features a crow!

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