Caturtleday, with face-planty goodness

By Phil Plait | June 11, 2011 6:38 am

I love biking, especially in Boulder. There are trails everywhere, and lots of fun wildlife. Whenever I’m out I see hawks, prairie dogs, red winged blackbirds, rabbits, and more. Sometimes even owls.

What I did not expect to see the other day, however, was a big ol’ turtle lumbering across the bike path! [Click the picture to testudinate.] For scale, I’d guess his (hers? Who can tell?) shell was about 30 cm across. He was trying to get to a creek off the path, I think, when I got this shot.

I switched to video on my camera, and happened to catch a moment that I’m sure would embarrass the turtle if it had access to YouTube:

Ha! Boom. Clearly, he shook it off and kept going. After I took this clip, he got a better look at how steep the creek bank was, changed his mind, and turned around. That process took several minutes; turtles are in no hurry.

As far as video quality goes, my apologies for a) the panting; I had just gotten off my bike to take the video so I was still catching my breath, and 2) the wrong aspect ratio for the video; I was holding my phone sideways to take pictures and didn’t turn it upright for the video. Sigh. I guess turtles have the right idea. Hurrying just gets you in trouble.

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MORE ABOUT: biking, Boulder, Caturday, turtle

Comments (44)

Links to this Post

  1. Rum and Reason » Llama ahora | Bad Astronomy | June 26, 2011
  1. Jenna

    A cute start to the one Saturday that I have to go into work. 😛

  2. Yeah, what Jenna said.

  3. Sam

    Isn’t it a tortoise? I thought turtles were the ones that live in the sea and talk like surfer dudes?

    Loved the video, though!

  4. James H. (south of Dallas)

    I just finished my 20 mile ride this morning, and I get to see lots of assorted animals as well. Rabbits, cats, dogs, squirrels, lots of birds including vultures and red tailed hawks for the most part. If I ride really early or into the night I can see coyotes and once a bobcat, which freaked me out!

  5. It’s a tortoise.

  6. Caitlin

    It appears to be a snapping turtle, though not as viscerally scary as the alligator versions we have in Florida!

  7. Sam, kuhnigget: I worried about that when I wrote the post, but it turns out it’s becoming common to refer to all such animals as “turtles”.

  8. I like turtles*.

    *Yeah I know it’s a tortoise.

  9. Sam

    Right you are:

    Just as well; Catortoiseday doesn’t have the same ring to it anyway.

  10. quarksparrow

    Snappers do like to wander. I once found one sitting on the loose rock at base of the Niagara Escarpment — and the nearest body of water was at least a kilometer away through thick bush. Pretty poor spot for egg laying, so I have no idea what she was doing there.

  11. Yep, certainly a common snapping turtle ( I was surprised to see it – I’m originally from Florida, where we have tons of reptiles and amphibians, and there seems to be so few here in Boulder!

  12. Michel

    Maybe it was a he and he mistook the rock for someone else…

  13. The British usage is that land chelonians are called tortoises, and the word turtle is reserved for oceanic ones. The American usage is that all chelonians are called turtles, and the word tortoise is reserved for only some land turtles. Exactly which ones, I still haven’t figured out. Anyway, this was a Snapping Turtle (never called a tortoise), Chelydra serpentina. And it’s good you didn’t get too close to it, Phil. A snapper that big can do real damage.

  14. Gjeff

    I have to say this is a bit of a step down from your Bad Universe TV series, both in terms of length and production quality. However, I imagine the production costs were MUCH lower. I guess another way the Earth could end is if the giant cosmic turtle that holds the Earth and the rest of the Universe on its back were to suddenly expire, or quit. Presumably that’s a different turtle from the one you video’d here.

    Looking forward to your next show!!!

  15. Pete Jackson

    Gotta take care of those turtles; it takes a lot of them to supply ‘turtles, all the way down’!

  16. Chet

    Most likely a female snapping turtle searching for a suitable nesting spot. Painted turtles and snappers are nesting out here in the NE.

  17. Chet

    Please be cautious as they are likely to be crossing roads, avoid running them over, and move them (snappers by their thick tails) in the dirction they were moving. Thanks.

  18. Dark Jaguar

    Not having a camera, I have a question. Why does every single Youtube video have a “camera handling” sound? Is there some way to eliminate this, for the sake of humanity?

  19. Michel

    @Dark Jaguar
    Plug in real mikes and don´t use the build in mikes.
    But that means cables and/or wireless etc.

  20. Mr. Purple

    @18- Chet-
    Please don’t lift them by the tail. It can injure their spine. In practice, the best advice for laypersons is to simply not touch the animal. Snapping turtles can inflict serious damage, and even seasoned reptile keepers must be careful moving them. Personally, I am far less nervous dealing with pitvipers than large snapping turtles.

    Also, it could be either a female searching for a nesting opportunity, or a male that has been pushed out of his home by a larger snapper.

  21. Theramansi


    So all tortoises are turtles, but not all turtles are tortoises.

    Kinda like: all pulsars are neutron stars, but not all neutrons stars are pulsars. :p

  22. Tbird

    Well he had an excuse for clumsiness, a human with a videocamera scared him.

  23. Nic

    Cracking picture. lovely, but it would have been better with four teeny elephants and a teeny Discworld on top, :). People unfamiliar with Terry Pratchett won’t get that, but never mind..


  24. Messier Tidy Upper

    For scale, I’d guess his (hers? Who can tell?)

    Another turtle hopefully! 😉

    They must be able to tell the difference otherwise they’d go extinct.

  25. One of my favorite recordings remains, after 50+ years, Saint-Saen’s “Carnival of the Animals”, with verses by Ogden Nash. I thought this was an appropriate poem to quote here:


    Come crown my brow with leaves of myrtle,
    I know the tortoise is a turtle,
    Come carve my name in stone immortal,
    I know the turtoise is a tortle.
    I know to my profound despair,
    I bet on one to beat a hare,
    I also know I’m now a pauper,
    Because of its tortley, turtley, torper. ”

    (spoken in stately, dulcet tones)

    dave mundt

  26. Messier Tidy Upper

    That could, I suppose on close inspection by a qualified turtle-ologist, turn out to be a teenage or even a mutant turtle but that’s clearly NOT a ninja turtle! 😉

    (Can’t believe I’m the first to use that reference here!)

  27. Messier Tidy Upper
  28. Messier Tidy Upper

    Reminded me of Steinbeck’s Grapes of Wrath novel :

    “The cat crept close between the men again, and its tail lay flat and its whiskers jerked now and then. The Sun dropped low toward the horizon and the dusty air was red and golden. The cat reached out a grey questioning paw and touched Joad’s coat. He looked around. ‘Hell, I forgot the turtle. I ain’t gonna pack it all over hell.’ He unwrapped the land turtle and pushed it under the house. But in a moment it was out, headed south-west as it had been from the first. The cat leaped at it and struck at its straining head and slashed at its moving feet. The old, hard, humorous head was pulled in, and the thick tail slapped in under the shell, and when the cat grew tired of walked off, the turtle, the turtle headed on south-west again.

    Young Tom Joad and the preacher watched the turtle go – waving its legs and boosting its heavy high-domed shell along toward the south-west. The cat crept along behind it for a while, but in a dozen yards it arched its back to a strong taut bow and yawned and came stealthily back toward the seated men.

    ‘Where the hell do you s’pose he’s goin’?’ said Joad. ‘I seen turtles all my life. They’re always goin’ some place. They always seem to want to get there.'”

    – Page 41, ‘The Grapes of Wrath’, John Steinbeck, Chancellor Press, first published 1939, this issue 1992.


    There we go – a quote including cats, turtles and astronomy (the setting sun and our planet’s atmosphere) for Caturtleday! 😉

    @27. Dave Mundt : Good poem quote – cheers. :-)

  29. Messier Tidy Upper

    @27. Dave Mundt : For the whole Saint-Saen’s “Carnival of the Animals” see :

    & for tortoise specifically :

    on Youtube.

    Which also boasts this :

    cat vs turtle (?) duel. Enjoy! 😉

  30. Messier Tidy Upper

    This limerick-ical one :

    By Ogden Nash is slightly different and somewhat more risque! 😉

    Although it does echo the point made in # 25. Hope its okay to post it here.

  31. Lars Bruchmann

    OMG, I lived near Porltand, OR when the “I like turtles” kid said that on the newscast. Great fun. I thought this was a male turtle due to the apparent concave area on his ventral side, visible when he pitches forward onto his face. This area is on males so they can… er… fit on top of the female during mating w/o falling off to the sides. I wish I had a concave surface on my belly… right now it’s more convex really.

  32. Tristan

    Yeah, the concave/convex plastron thing is super cool! I was taught how to determine the sex of a turtle when I was studying with a wildlife vet in Indonesia. He had picked up two small tortoises from their enclosure and was jamming them together in the appropriate position to demonstrate how well the male “slots” onto the female’s carapace when he clambers on top of her to mate!

    Seriously though, don’t ever flip a turtle if you don’t have to – the weight of the turtle’s shell can crush its respiratory system and cause it some serious stress and discomfort.

  33. Don´t Panic

    hmmmm kaaayy
    Some hardcore rodeo.

  34. My guess is that its a she – with many freshwater turtles the females have shorter tails and claws. But I’d have to get closer. And I have been MUCH closer to these beautiful little creatures!
    As for nomenclature, in North America, tortoises are land-dwelling, turtles are fresh water dwellers, and sea-turtles are marine.
    I have also heard the term “terrapin” used for freshwater turtles – I believe that term is common in Australia.

  35. Monkey

    I always hold my breath (for shorter clips, 30 sec or so) and hold on to all my camera gadgets (straps, lens cover, etc) tight so the wind doesn’t whap them into the camera, giving that camera ‘handling’ sound.

  36. Lars Bruchmann

    @Tristan: Thanks for giving the appropriate nomenclature for the turtle parts. That is about all I know about turtles/tortoiuses: how to sex them. I love impressing people with it. Chicks totally dig it. I once tried to ‘save’ a snapper on hwy 79 near the south end of Wichita Falls, TX, USA. When I came up to it he turned and moved towards me hissing and opening his mouth, it was very scary. I was inadvertently pushing him backwards onto the road so I had to move around him so he was chasing me off the hwy, that seemed to work.

  37. Niall

    Turtles: Even their faceplants are slow

  38. Bruce J. Mohn

    Sexing snappers isn’t as easy as it is with terrestrial turtles. Normally you’d be correct that the male has a a concavity in his plastron (lower shell) and the female is convex. But water turtles and particularly snappers don’t seem to adhere to this rule as nicely. Generally male turtles have longer tails than females as theri genitalia is housed there, but you need a male and a female turtle to compare tail length.

    Moving snappers isn’t hard if you don’t piss them off. I usually grip them near the base of the tail and slide one hand underneath and lift. The hand holding the tail is just to hold the turtle on my other hand, not to lift with. If you move them quickly, they usually don’t get upset.

    Contrary to popular belief, they can’t bite a finger off. The tip of their beaks can cause deep punctures though and the sides of the beak will cause bruising.

  39. Buzz Parsec

    I saw a pair of snappers about this size in Fresh Pond, Cambridge last week. I was sure if they were engaged in some sort of territorial battle or if they were showing affection in pure Klingon fashion. In the middle of the ?battle?, they spent quite a bit of time just clasping each other, plastron to plastron, while floating on their sides just below the surface of the water. Earlier they seemed to be butting each other with their heads, trying to climb on top of each other, trying to push and hold each other underwater, with a fair amount of slow-motion whacking with their clawed feet and occasional snaps. The general consensus of the people I pointed them out to was they were mating, but I’m not convinced either way.

  40. Lars Bruchmann

    Wow Buzz.. that sounds like my marriage! LOL

  41. I can’t wait until Apple makes an app that reminds people to turn their iPod/iPhone sideways!


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