I visit the snapping turtle every day, though she was confirmed dead more than a week ago. Parts of her shell are now starting to decay, along with some spots on her neck, but otherwise she is remarkably intact.
She sits upright in a shallow portion of the Vilas Park lagoon, just below one of the bridges. Grayson Doss, a veterinarian at the UW vet school, surmises the turtle might have sought out a warm, sunny spot when she was not feeling well.
It is a warm and sunny Saturday morning when I first spot her from a bridge in the park. Others are gawking at her as well. She already looks dead, but one couple says they have seen her tongue move.
I return that night, and she is still not moving. The next day I call the Four Lakes Wildlife Center at the Dane County Humane Society for an expert opinion, and Jason Kingstad, an intern, offers to drive out to take a look.
I arrive at the park about 20 minutes before Jason. The weather has turned bitterly cold and the wind is fierce. The snapping turtle is still there, pretty much in the same position. I stand below the bridge on the banks of the creek to wait.
After a few minutes something hard and dark skims the surface. It looks to be another large snapping turtle, making his rounds on the bottom of the creek.
The moment Jason arrives, the turtle mounts the inert one. I have a moment of relief, thinking this is all just some kind of mating ritual and my snapping turtle is alive and well after all.
But turtles are known to mate vigorously and there is little action. After watching for a couple of minutes, Jason is certain my turtle is dead. He has a net with him, but decides to just leave the turtle in the creek and “let nature take its course.”
I fetch my neighbor Karolyn, who has a camera with a heavy-duty zoom lens, and return to the bridge. Her daughter, Carson, also comes along.
When Karolyn, a big softie, sees the scene she is heartbroken. “He’s grieving,” she says, figuring the two had been longtime mates.
But that turns out not to be quite right. Snapping turtles don’t mate for life or even form much of a partnership, says Doss. No, this dude had still not figured out that the sweet nothings he was whispering were falling on literally deaf ears.
“The way the top turtle is biting the neck and grabbing the shell with both his left fore and hind limbs, it seems as though the alive turtle is attempting to mate with a turtle he does not realize is dead,” says Doss after looking at a photo I send him.
Doss is right. Six days after that first encounter, my snapping turtle is again sought out by a live turtle. This time, though, the male turtle goes at it a bit more aggressively.
A guy with a camera is standing on the bridge next to me. I fill him in on my visits and share my newfound expertise in the mating habits of snapping turtles. “Great,” he says, “I’m taking a picture of necrophilia.”
Habitat: Prefers slow-moving water and a sandy bottom
Sexual maturity: When upper shell measures 8 inches
Behavior: Docile in water, but can be aggressive on land
Lifespan: Up to 40 years or more
Food: Plants, insects, even small turtles