Turtle Song

photo of Snapping turtle © Lang ElliottEvery 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 gave telephoned me and said he had caught a “singing turtle” and wondered if I wanted to record it. I was interested, of course, even though I figured he might be pulling my leg. Several days later, I took my gear to a spring-fed pond on private property not far from Ithaca, New York. A male Snapping Turtle was in a large wire-mesh cage that was mostly submerged at the end of a wooden dock. Two female snappers were keeping him company. I set my soundscape mike on the dock, pointing it toward the top of the cage, which stuck up above the water. I then unraveled about two-hundred feet of cable and sat on the nearby lawn and waited, listening through my headphones.

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, melancholy squeals that were surprisingly animated:

Melancholy squeals and inhalations of a male Snapping Turtle given with head above water. 5pm, 28 July 2005, near Ithaca, New York. Recorded by Lang Elliott.

This is totally outrageous, wouldn’t you agree? But what on earth is going on here? To my knowledge, no biologist has ever described male turtles singing songs. Is this an anomaly? Perhaps the old patriarch has something caught in his throat! Or maybe all male snapping turtles do the same, but nobody has ever caught on to it. Are there any turtle experts out there? If so, then whatya think about this?

My friend Josh thinks it’s the male turtle’s “song,” although 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?

Comments

  1. I have been hearing that.sound for months and couldn’t figure out what it was. It was always happening at night while I was on the computer. I snuck out to the hallway to investigate it and it was my snapper singin it’s heart out. I looked online and found this article. It sounds exactly the same as your recording.

    • Brandon: It surely is amazing sound, and one that is only heard by few. Of course, how many people have pet snapping turtles in their hallway? 🙂

    • Gary Owens says:

      Just posted a set of images on my Flikr page showing the end result of this song. The photo stream is GO Photo2010. I was out gathering the horses in about 6A when I came across Mrs. snapping turtle (Chelydra serpentina serpentina (Linnaeus) laying her eggs. In 55 days I will check the area for hatchlings.

  2. Zack Frieben says:

    This is amazing! Maybe you did discover something unheard of. I’ve seen snapping turtles quite a bit before, and I’ve never ever, ever, heard one do this before.

  3. Gorgeous day in early spring (almost) in upstate NY near Troy. Out for a walk in a rural setting I heard what i thot were Canada geese in the distance but quickly realized the sound was closer and not geese. I was approaching a small (about 20 yards in diameter) pond–more like a mudhole really– and believed it must be some frogs or peepers making a sound I had never heard them making. As I came abreast of the pond I could see about 75-100 turtles (box turtles I think) with their heads poking out of the water apparently making these sounds–clucking almost like a group of full grown hens but sweeter sounding. No frogs in sight. From the edge of the pond, I could see turtles coming to the surface trailing pond muck. I watched and listened to this for about 10 minutes. When a car came by they stopped singing but resumed after it had passed. I am 70 and had never seen/heard such a thing. Can someone explain? This is the only site I could find about turtles singing and I was fascinated by the sound of this snapping turtle– but these turtles I heard sounded joyous!

    • Shoshin: The time of year, your description of the little pond, and especially your calling the sound “clucking” tells me that you came upon a pond full of cackling Wood Frogs, which are peaking right now. Such a pond is too small to support a large population of turtles! I don’t think we have a post featuring Wood Frogs, although I have a ton of videos and sound recordings of the species. Perhaps I’ll post something on my Facebook page later this weekend.

  4. Sara:

    Song from a Red-eard Slider? Tell me what it sounded like!~

    Lang

  5. I too have heard my red-eared slider chortle. it was a beautiful song!!!!! I am dissappointed that i haven’t heard it in months. That is why I looked up singing turtles. I wondered if anyone else had heard of them singing.

  6. Hi Lang,
    Well, after weeks and weeks of trying to get this on film, I finally got a clip last night! When I first tried filming her she clammed right up and didn’t make a sound. At one stage she even approached the camera (a web cam, Logitech 9000), and stared at it – she obviously knew something was different about her surroundings.
    Then last night she started up again and I got film of several squeaks and wails.
    The thing to do now is to have you login to our external server via secure ftp. Contact me at that email
    and I will send you instructions how to get at it.
    Regards, Bill

  7. This is for real. I raised a hatchling to its present size, about 15 pounds. I keep her in a large tank (we are pretty sure it is a female after conferring w/ 2 friends who are professional wetland biologists) A little
    over a year ago mid-summer I started hearing these bizarre wailing sounds and thought I was losing my mind. Then I saw my turtle raise her head out of the water, arch her neck, pull in a large gulp of air
    and proceeded to let out this resonant squawk. This went on for about 2 months and then stopped.
    She started again about a couple of months ago and has added chirps, and a duck-like quack to
    her repertoire. She does it a lot so I am certain I will have no problem recording this. Then I will post it.

  8. Here’s a turtle with a message! It almost sounds similar to whale song…the old ones! Sounds like you can hear the inhale also…I heard about this guy the week he was found…thank you, Lang.

  9. A herpetology lab might interpret this Lang, or a wetlands wildlife rehabilitator. I’ll send the url to one or two, and return any feedback. It is quite other-worldly. Living on a creek, we watch early each spring for the annual foray of an old trooper (carapace worn smoothe now) up the cutbank and its wooded palisade, to a pond on the neighbor’s farm. We watch from a safe distance I might add. But I have a charmingly incongruous photo of him sunning beneath my flowering cherry tree. Fearsome old warrior bedecked in pink fluff.

    • I ran it by a couple of herpetologists back in 2005. One laughed and said it must have something caught in its throat. The other, Kraig Adler of Cornell, was quite interested and I hooked him up with Josh, the guy who caught the turtle. But I never heard his conclusions. I recommended that someone do an X-ray of the turtle’s throat to see if there was an obstruction, growth, etc. Josh told me later that he had donated he turtle to an Aquarium somewhere in Florida.

  10. Poor thing. Sounds like he is crying to me.

    • He certainly does sound like he’s crying, at least according to human standards. But our cry could be the turtle’s cheer. Given that he (the turtle) is aware of his “situation,” perhaps he’s cheering because he’s accompanied by two females. Or perhaps he’s crying because he’s in a cage, trapped with two pestering females. Or maybe he’s just singing his “Song of Myself,” Whitman-style, as he meets life with full attention and feeling.

  11. That is so cool! I thought it was an obstruction but now after listening to the whole thing, it seems deliberate..I mean, as long as it isn’t respiratory infection, it is very cool sounding:)

  12. Ryan Tomazin says:

    My mother used to trap/catch snappers for cooking (gasp…), and I played this over the telephone for her. She’d never heard such a sound. Maybe this specimen was unique, or there was/is a subspecies that vocalizes.

    • Hi there Ryan. Good to meet you after my talk. I think the singing snapper was an oddity—perhaps he had some kind of obstruction in its throat. But the wavering nature of the sounds makes everyone including me think twice. It sure sounds like the turtle is being creative with his soundmaking. My girlfriend thinks he was not feeling good; I have no idea what he was feeling. In any event, I think the recording will forever remain a bit of a mystery.

  13. That is bizarre. I have never heard of snapping turtles doing anything but hissing at you when you get too close. This is really unique. Certainly an amazing sound and as to the behavioral context – we need a graduate student to look in to this 🙂

  14. Maureen Brady Johnson says:

    This is really wild. Maybe the two female turtles had “exhausted” him and he was pleading to get out of the cage.

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