June 12, 2008 Prehistoric Moments with a Living Fossil


There are sights that take you back millions of years in a moment.  Today I was looking for photographs along a trail to Willow Falls in Willow River State Park near Hudson, Wisconsin.  When I walked around a bend, I saw a huge turtle in the trail.  I had not seen a Snapping Turtle so big since I worked at Beaver Lake Nature Center in upstate New York, and this was a monster.  The shell would have measured about a foot long, had I dared to lay a ruler along its back.  I didn’t, because these turtles have much quicker reflexes than you might think, and their bite is reputed to be able to remove a finger.  I’d rather not find out the hard way!  Female Snapping Turtles emerge from slow rivers and lakes in June to lay their eggs.  Cumbersome on land, a snapper lumbers along with difficulty until it finds just the right soft patch of earth to dig a hole for the eggs, which are roughly the size, shape, and color of ping pong balls.  The tail is about as long as the shell, and has big plates reminiscent of the Stegosaurus dinosaur.  The head is massive, and has patterns that probably act as underwater camouflage.   The claws are long and sharp–reminding me of bear claws–and are used for digging.

Fear necessitated longer lenses, so I photographed with a 100 mm macro lens (perhaps a bit too short for safety), a 24-105 mm zoom, and a 70-200 mm zoom with an extension tube to allow closer focusing.  This turtle stayed in one spot for nearly an hour, but then started moving up the trail, which gave me opportunities to photograph it in different light and with varied backgrounds.  I took a few pictures from above, to record the human perspective, but my most evocative pictures are those where I laid down on the ground, viewing the creature’s face from eye level.  I’m still dirty from head to toe as a result, but the photographs are good.  

There is one rule of wildlife photography that even a rule-breaker like me feels obliged to obey, and that is to get the creature’s eye in sharp focus, whether it is a reptile, mammal, bird, or insect.  Humans and many other species look at eyes as windows on the soul of intent (remember when President Bush looked into the eyes of Russian President Putin and proclaimed that “I looked the man in the eye … I was able to get a sense of his soul”), so a view of the eyes is crucial to our perceived relationship to another individual or an animal.  Turtle shells, mammal hair, bird feathers, and other details can be out of focus, but the photographer had better remember to get those eyes as sharp as possible!

A young family with four children came up to me while I was photographing; I explained what the Snapping Turtle was doing and suggested that they could safely walk around it at a distance of about five feet.  One little boy, perhaps seven years old, had big and fearful eyes.  He wouldn’t walk past the turtle until I and his Dad escorted him safely past.  He will remember that moment, and how his older brother said the turtle looked like a dinosaur.  The family had just seen another wonderful sight–a deer wading in the river, its summer coat beautifully lit by the low sun, eating water plants.  What a wonderful and evocative hike for these children!  [Please, parents, spend a great deal of quality time outdoors with your children and it will pay them back with a lifetime of love for their world].

I encountered a second Snapping Turtle as big as the first along the same trail.  It had just emerged from the river and was still glistening wet; it even still had a bloodsucker clinging to its shell.  There was a water weed draped over the shell that I knew would be unsightly in a photograph, so I approached the turtle from behind and pulled the weed off.  This turtle instantly reacted, turning around and lunging at my hand.  Fortunately I was quicker.  This turtle would not stand still for a portrait, so I grabbed a few shots before it galloped away (if you can imagine a big turtle galloping!) and splashed into the wetland pond across the trail.

Other prehistoric moments along the trail included hearing Gray Treefrogs warbling like birds in the trees and shrubs all around me–perhaps half-a-dozen at once.  And Bullfrogs rumbling with resonant tones.  And Green Frogs with their calls that naturalists describe as being like “plucked banjo strings.”  A Painted Turtle sunned its chilled body on a log.  A Great Egret waded patiently in the river shallows.  These species have all survived millions upon millions of years in strings of slow and endless evolution.  

Earlier in the day, I passed through some low hills in Wisconsin that have been mined for iron ore.  These remnant mountains and their ore deposits are said to be 2.5 billion years old–talk about a prehistoric moment!  But nothing brought home a link to the distant past as seeing that living fossil–the Snapping Turtle.


This is part of a weblog documenting my travels and photography. I am primarily a nature photographer and you can see more of my work at http://www.leerentz.com

Click on the photographs below to see a larger version with captions.

One Comment on “June 12, 2008 Prehistoric Moments with a Living Fossil

  1. Awesome, Lee!!! What a marvelous description of your encounter! And, an hour to work with!! Had to be quite the experience. Glad you were able to keep all your fingers intact!!

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