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Q. I try to move turtles off the road so they won’t get run over. Box turtles never try to bite me. Snapping turtles always try to bite me. And they never appreciate my help. How aggressive are different kinds of turtles toward humans?

A. Any turtle is capable of biting a person, but some are almost never inclined to do so whereas others never miss an opportunity to latch on if they feel threatened. As with many animal traits, variability exists in how likely a turtle is to take issue with being handled by a human.

Box turtles are among the most docile turtles in the world. I have only seen one wild-caught box turtle stick out its neck and bite its captor. All the others have been shy and tucked into their shell or simply plodded along without being aggressive. Pet box turtles are known for their amiability. And they can recognize their owners, whom they view as their meal ticket.

U.S. tortoises also have a reputation for being nonbiters of humans. In his research in the Southwest, Jeff Lovich (U.S. Geological Survey) has handled countless desert tortoises and never had an adult attempt to bite. Tracey Tuberville (University of Georgia’s Savannah River Ecology Laboratory) has conducted research on hundreds of southeastern gopher tortoises as well as desert tortoises. The only bite she has ever seen was when a gopher tortoise bit someone who was sticking it with a hypodermic needle to extract blood. Can’t blame the tortoise for that. The small and beautiful spotted turtles of the eastern states also get a gold star for not biting. Wildlife specialist Parker Gibbons has caught dozens and has never seen one try to bite when being picked up in the wild or as a pet.

Most U.S. turtles fit somewhere along a gradient from the few kinds that almost never bite people to those that are almost guaranteed to give biting a try. But biters fit into two other very important categories. One group includes what are the most common U.S. turtles, slider and painted turtles. Most will bite a person if given a chance, but they are not very good at it. I have handled more than 10,000 of these turtles while conducting research on them for 40 years and have only been bitten three times. None left much of a mark after they let go.

The other end of the spectrum includes the really bad actors that can deliver a memorable chomp to someone not paying attention to what they are doing. Eastern musk turtles, aka stinkpots, protect themselves from predators by creating a bad odor produced by glands in their shell. However, if picked up, a stinkpot will stretch its neck out and try to bite whatever is holding it. Their sharp little jaws can draw blood. They apparently enjoy the experience, because they are in no hurry to let go.

Common snapping turtles are found in most U.S. states and have a well-earned reputation for biting to protect themselves. Almost everyone I know who has been bitten by a snapper, including me, remembers the incident vividly and admits they were at fault, not the turtle. I have never heard of a common snapper biting off a finger, but a close relative can definitely do so.

Turtles lack teeth, but the cutting edges of the jaws of a 150-pound alligator snapper are terrifyingly effective biting tools. I know of a Georgia turtle poacher who had only nine fingers thanks to a misadventure with such a mouth. In a well-documented incident in Alabama a large alligator snapper was brought into a bar and placed on the counter. The owner bet he could reach into the turtle’s mouth before it snapped it shut. The loser now has eight fingers.

No one ever needs to be bitten by a turtle. If they are, they were probably the victim of a scared turtle trying to protect itself.

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Parker Gibbons sits behind a 150-pound alligator snapping turtle at the Turtle Survival Center near Charleston, S.C. Photo courtesy Clinton Doak