Effects of a sudden increase in natural mortality of adults on a population of the common snapping turtle (Chelydra serpentina)

Ronald J. Brooks, Gregory P. Brown, David A. Galbraith

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

196 Citations (Scopus)


A northern population of snapping turtles (Chelydra serpentina) centred around Lake Sasajewun in the Wildlife Research Area in Algonquin Park, Ontario, has been studied and individually marked since 1972. From 1972 to 1985, annual mortality and survivorship of adult females had been estimated at 1 and 96.6%, respectively, and only six dead turtles were found. Lake Sasajewun's population of C. serpentina was estimated in 1978–1979 and 1984–1985 at 38 and 47 adults, respectively. From 1976 to 1987, total number of nests found in the study area remained fairly constant and there were no significant changes in mean clutch size, mean clutch mass, or mean egg mass. On the main nest site, recruitment from 1976 to 1987 was 1.15 (1.8%) new females per year. From 1987 to 1989, we found 34 dead adult snapping turtles in the Wildlife Research Area. Observations of freshly dead animals indicated that most were killed by otters (Lutra canadensis) during the turtles' winter hibernation. A few uninjured turtles also died of septicemia in early spring shortly after emerging from hibernation. The estimated number of adults in Lake Sasajewun was 31 in 1988–1989, and the minimum number of adult residents known to be alive in the lake dropped from 47 in 1986 to 16 in 1989. In 1986 and 1987, annual adult female survivorship was estimated at 80 and 55%, respectively, and estimated numbers of nesting females declined from 82 in 1986 to 71 and 55 in 1987 and 1988, respectively. The actual number of nests found declined by 38 and 20% over the same periods. Although no significant differences occurred in mean egg mass or mean clutch size between 1987 and 1989 and earlier years, the mean clutch mass in 1988 was larger than in 1977 or 1978. This difference appeared to be due to a gradual increase in the mean age and body size of breeding females rather than to density-dependent changes. Recruitment into the adult breeding female population in 1987–1989 remained less than two individuals per year. Hatchling survival and number of juveniles were low throughout the study. Our observations support the view that populations of species with high, stochastic juvenile mortality and long adult life spans may be decimated quickly by increased mortality of adult animals, particularly if numbers of juveniles and immigrants are low. Recovery of such populations should be very slow because of a lack of effective density-dependent response in reproduction and recruitment.
Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)1314-1320
Number of pages7
JournalCanadian Journal of Zoology
Issue number5
Publication statusPublished - May 1991
Externally publishedYes


Dive into the research topics of 'Effects of a sudden increase in natural mortality of adults on a population of the common snapping turtle (Chelydra serpentina)'. Together they form a unique fingerprint.

Cite this