Every now and then I come across a sound event so bizarre and unusual that I can’t believe my ears. Such was the case in late July of 2005. My friend Josh, a Snapping Turtle expert, telephoned me and said he had caught a “singing male” and wondered if I wanted to record him. I was interested, of course, even though I figured Josh might be pulling my leg.
Several days later, I took my gear to a spring-fed pond on private property not far from Pine Valley, here in upstate New York. A male Snapping Turtle (Chelydra serpentina) was in a large wire-mesh cage that was mostly submerged at the end of a wooden dock. Two female snappers in an adjoining cage were keeping him company. I set my soundscape mike on the dock, pointing it toward the top of his cage, which stuck up slightly above the water. I then unraveled about two-hundred feet of cable and sat on the nearby lawn and waited, listening patiently through my headphones:
Expressive squeals of a Snapping Turtle in a partially submerged wire-mesh cage, given while surfacing during the day. 25 July 2005. Recorded at a mountain lake near Pine Valley, New York. © Lang Elliott.
Within about fifteen minutes, I heard a few gurgles and the sound of dripping water. While I didn’t have a good view of the cage, I suspected that the turtle had swum up and poked his head above the surface. I turned on my recorder. Then I heard a hissy, airy sound, accompanied by a whistling squeak (his inhalation?). What followed was truly a surprise … a series of husky, wavering squeals that were notably expressive. I remember thinking: “OMG, Josh wasn’t kidding, this snapping turtle really can sing!”
This is totally outrageous, don’t you agree? But what on earth is going on here? To my knowledge, no biologist has ever observed and described a Snapping Turtle vocalizing. Is this an anomaly? Perhaps the old patriarch has something caught in his throat (like a fishing lure)? Or perhaps he wailing in distress at being cooped-up in a cage? Or maybe his squeals have something to do with mating, or else “wanting” to mate? Are there any turtle experts out there? If so, then what’s your take on this?
My friend Josh thinks it’s the male turtle’s “song” (as opposed to a distress call) although he admits that he’s not at all sure what it means. Do females respond to these forlorn squeals? Or is he aiming his song at us gullible humans? In other words, is this danged turtle trying to mess with our minds?
Maybe the following Youtube video of tortoises mating will shed some light on things. These are not Snapping Turtles by any means, but there are similarities in the sounds, don’t you think?:
You may wonder what happened to the singing turtle. It turns out that Josh donated it to Lowry Park Zoo in Tampa Florida, where there is a display with a push-button that plays my recording:
NEWS FLASH: I just discovered the following interesting study of the underwater vocalizations of an aquatic long-necked turtle : Voice of the Turtle … In this study, reference is made to numerous other studies of sounds emitted during breeding activities, such as “long sequences of whimpers and wailings emitted by Hermann’s Tortoises”. But there’s no mention of the Snapping Turtle. Still, it verifies the prevalence of turtle vocalizations and points to the need for further studies
Before closing, I want you to hear what a REAL singing turtle sounds like (ha!):
A NOTE FROM LANG: This blog post was originally published in 2011 on one of my discontinued websites. Yesterday, a friend asked me about the recording, so I decided to republish the post here, with several edits to the story line.