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Many animals hibernate during winter when the weather outside is incompatible with their lifestyle. But do turtles hibernate during winter?
Yes, both land and water turtles do hibernate. However, turtles hibernate quite differently from other animals. They don’t completely go to sleep but rather remain slightly active during this period.
Turtle hibernation is called “brumation” but that’s everything. Next up, we’ll talk about various aspects related to turtle hibernation!
How do Turtles Hibernate?
Hibernation is the period of dormancy that hot-blooded mammals go through when the weather is too cold. Generally, they do it when winter comes. Bears are one of the best examples of this. When winter is coming (hah!), bears retreat into their lairs and go to sleep for months at a time. They only wake up when spring comes.
Cold-blooded reptiles like turtles go through brumation instead of hibernation. They don’t eat for months on end because they don’t need to. The only difference between a hibernating bear and a brumating turtle is that the turtle may become active at any time. If the sun burns brighter, you may see a turtle coming out to bask in the sun, even if it’s winter.
At the beginning of fall, when it’s becoming colder outside, a turtle’s metabolism slows down. It needs less oxygen and food, so it can start the brumation period. To compare its metabolism, a turtle’s heart beats 40 times per minute in hot weather, but only 10 times per minute in cold weather. From what I read, turtles look for a cozy substrate and they burrow into it. Even if the temperatures are near-freezing, that substrate provides insulation, preventing the turtle from freezing.
Land turtles will look for soft ground or piles of leaves to start their hibernation. After it burrows into the substrate, a turtle will generally leave the top of its shell exposed. Water turtles, on the other hand, bury themselves in the mud in ponds or lakes. So, don’t try to set up a pile of leaves for your water turtle because it may not like it. A pond is best for their hibernation!
All turtles hibernate, whether outside or inside. Even if you keep your turtle indoors, its instincts are still there, so it’ll try hibernating if the temperatures drop suddenly. To prevent hibernation, use aquarium heaters to warm the turtle’s water. It’s also best not to force a sick turtle to hibernate. If it has a cracked shell, irritated eyes, or is underweight, I recommend not letting it to brumate.
Instead, take your turtle to a vet. After bringing their health back to an optimal state, you can let your turtle hibernate.
How Long do Turtles Hibernate?
As I said, turtle brumation doesn’t mean they’re inactive for a set period of time. They can walk out of their dwelling at any time. But typically, either a water or land turtle will hibernate for 2-4 months, from October to February. If spring comes sooner and the temperatures become warmer, the turtle will interrupt its hibernation ahead of time.
Not only temperature but also light plays an important role in premature interruptions of hibernation in turtles. If the light is stronger, it means the sun is shining brighter, which also means that it’s warmer outside. A turtle can feel this and may choose to interrupt its brumation to take a peek outside.
How To Care for Hibernating Turtles?
This is where the hibernaculum comes into play. A hibernaculum is the hibernation box you construct for your turtle. You can build one from plywood, then build a smaller one in the first one. Fill the gap with insulation material like foam, to really improve your turtle’s security during hibernation. Put a substrate in the inner box, such as:
- Shredded newspapers
If you want to keep your turtle indoors, place the box inside a fridge with the temperature set just above freezing. Alternatively, place the box outside but make sure the temperature inside the box never goes below freezing. You can also prepare a turtle for hibernation by feeding it vitamin A through carrots and leafy green vegetables.
The turtle’s body consumes vitamin A lot during hibernation. Just before summer ends, feed your pet turtle a lot of fibers. This helps with the digestive process because undigested food often leads to bacterial infections and even pneumonia. Most pet turtles also require a fasting period of a few weeks before going into hibernation.
Make sure you hydrate your pet turtle for 20-30 minutes every day. This provides it with the necessary water intake and also removes leftover waste in the digestive tract. Lastly, start reducing the temperature gradually, until you get to 50 degrees Fahrenheit. That’s the sweet spot for turtle hibernation.
After the turtle enters into hibernation, monitor it once per week to prevent any illnesses and infections from appearing. If your turtle has difficulties breathing, manifests discharges, or changes skin color, call your veterinarian immediately. If you notice that the turtle’s skin is dry, soak it in lukewarm water for 1-2 hours before putting it back in its box.
Is My Turtle Hibernating or Is It Dead?
During hibernation, all turtles remain perfectly still. Unless they have a reason to get out (warmer weather), turtles will not move at all. So, you may start believing it’s dead. No one would blame you for not making the difference. I know I wouldn’t, most likely. Theoretically, you shouldn’t disturb your turtles during brumation. If the temperature is above freezing, nothing will happen to them.
But if you want to check whether your turtle is alive or dead, there are a few things you can check:
- Stimulate the turtle by touching its legs or picking it up. Even though it’s hibernating, turtles are vaguely aware of their surroundings. They should start wiggling their feet or make hissing sounds if you touch them
- Stimulate the area between the tail and the cloaca. Your turtle will feel that pressure even more so than its legs or tail. It may extend its head to see what’s happening or try to escape because it doesn’t like the sensation. Alternatively, try turning the turtle over. They really don’t like that but it doesn’t harm them either. So, if it’s alive, the turtle will try to get back up
- Smell your turtle. Does it smell bad? It might be dead, then. When an animal dies, microorganisms start consuming the dead tissue, a process that releases foul-smelling gases. It may take a few days until the odor becomes evident, though
- Try seeing if the turtle floats. A dead turtle has more gases inside it, making it float. However, even live turtles may choose to float of their own volition, so this method is not perfectly fool-proof
- See if it moves. If it’s alive, then you should see subtle movements between the front legs and the neck, or between the rear legs and the tail.
As I said, though, a turtle has no reasons to suddenly die unless it’s sick or the temperature is below the freezing point. In nature, turtles brumate in harsher environments, and yet they still don’t die. Their instincts are adapted to offering the best survival chances. So, as long as you build them a proper hibernaculum, the turtle will take care of things by itself.Reptiles, Turtles