Can Turtles Survive In Freezing Temperatures? (Beginner’s Guide)

Every living thing adapts differently to changes in environmental temperature. During winter, mammals add a layer of body fat and hibernate, birds fly south, and trees lose their leaves. However, one thing that many people don’t know is how turtles cope with freezing temperatures.

Do these shell-carrying creatures hibernate/bromate? Do they hide in caves or stay in the water? Or how do they deal with extremely cold temperatures? Today’s piece will explain how these reptiles survive the freezing temperatures.

Where Do Turtles Vanish During Cold Season?

During spring, summer, and fall, turtles are often seen basking on rocks and logs as they relish the sun’s warm rays. However, when winter kicks in, these reptiles disappear and won’t be seen until the cold season is over.

Essentially, turtles are ectothermic – a fancy word to say that they are cold-blooded – and rely on the environment to maintain optimal internal body temperature. This means that when the temperature in the environment drops, their body temperature also plummets and vice versa.

However, this happens up to a specific limit when the reptiles can’t take it any longer. During the winter season, aquatic turtles detect the drop in environmental temperature and retreat underneath the water, where they stay until the weather starts to warm up.

 They take refuge at the bottom of the sea or bury themselves in the mud until winter is over. Although most people refer to this process as hibernation, its correct name is brumation.

How Water Help Turtles Survive Freezing Temperatures?

Water has high specific heat and usually acts as a temperature buffer; it doesn’t get cooled or heated quickly. It will take lots of energy to alter water temperature. For this reason, water remains relatively stable even during freezing temperatures.

While pond or river water will crystalize at the surface and form ice during the cold season, the water at the bottom will only experience subtle temperature fluctuation. This means that when the turtles are at the bottom of the water, they can maintain optimal body temperature by matching it to that of the surrounding water.

Turtles avoid usually vanish from the land since air has low specific heat. This means that it requires less energy to cool or heat air, thus can get too cold for their survival. However, you might be wondering, how do these turtles breathe when submerged in water?

How Turtles Breathe When Lying at the Bottom of the Pond?

Like all animals, turtles need oxygen to survive. However, staying underwater during the cold season complicates things since they can’t breathe from down there. Luckily, turtles have the unique ability to absorb oxygen from the water through cloacal respiration.

Simply put, these creatures survive underwater by breathing through their butts. The cloaca, which is also used to pass waste, eggs, and urine, also boasts a rich capillary network that allows oxygen to diffuse into the turtle’s blood system.

Although oxygen that gets into the body through cloacal respiration is not adequate, it suffices the needs of turtles in dormancy until it starts to warm up. However, turtles usually run through problems when the water doesn’t have enough oxygen.

Do Turtles Hibernate?

Yes, turtles go through a period of low activity or dormancy during the cold season. And although most people refer to the process as hibernation, the proper term for it is brumation. Hibernation is often used to refer to the process where warm-blooded animals reserve extra nutrients as fats for use during the cold season when they can’t scavenge for food.

Hibernation is often likened to brumation, an idle period of low activity that turtles go through during winter when underwater. Unlike hibernation, where animals go into a deep sleep, brumation involves subtle movement, and only cold-blooded animals experience it. However, referring to the process as hibernation isn’t considered a crime since it’s what most people are used to.

Therefore, while turtles will be in a sleep-like state during the cold season, not everything is shut down. The creatures will be able to detect any changes in the surrounding environment. One sense that alerts the turtles that the winter season is over is their sight.

Even with their eyes closed, turtles can still detect changes in light intensity. When the ice on the surface melts, turtles will notice that the bottom is much brighter and would snap out of the brumation state. Conversely, when winter is coming to an end, water movement increases. Turtles will notice changes in water movement and wake up from their slumber.

How Long Do Turtles Brumate?

Essentially, the time turtles take in hibernation will depend on their location. Since the northern side experiences a longer cold season, those on the north side will brumate for an extended period than those on the southern side.

Additionally, the length of the brumation period may differ from one year to the next since the cold season doesn’t start on the same day every year. However, most turtles can stay in a brumation state for a maximum of 8 months. However, no turtle will spend this long in hibernation. The longest a turtle can stay in brumation is around 100 days.

At What Temperature Do Turtles go into Hibernation?

Practically, turtles can survive in water temperature as long as it’s above freezing point. However, the standard water heat requirement for turtles is 75 to 86 degrees Fahrenheit. However, if the temperature drops by two or three degrees, the turtle will notice a temperature change. Regardless, the turtle’s internal temperature will adjust as the water temperature drops.

However, the turtle’s heat won’t drop further when the external temperature drops to freezing point. A further decline will shut some metabolic processes, forcing turtles to go into hibernation. When temperatures drop below 50 degrees Fahrenheit, turtles will start brumating.  

Do all Turtles Hibernate in the Winter?

Unfortunately, not all turtles hibernate. However, you need to conduct thorough research on the turtle you want to bring home to know if it will hibernate in the cold season. Typically, all turtles can hibernate during the cold season. However, not all of them do so. While some, like freshwater turtles, hibernate underwater, others like box turtle burry themselves on the ground until the winter season is over.

Turtles below three years don’t hibernate. However, when in the wild, painted baby turtles go through a process known as overwintering to escape the cold season. Essentially, the baby turtles leverage the fat reserves they were born with during freezing temperatures. 

Pet turtle owners should also ensure that sick turtles don’t hibernate. If a turtle is has a damaged shell, irritated eyes, or is underweight, it should not brumate. If a turtle hibernates when sick, it can easily lose its life.

A turtle’s body slows down during brumation to the extent that even the immune system is highly compromised. This leaves the creatures extremely vulnerable to diseases. This is why sick or injured turtles shouldn’t be allowed to hibernate, as they are highly likely to perish during the process.

What Problems Do Turtles Face When Brumating?

While the whole process of evading the freezing temperatures seems like a perfect adventure, it poses risks that can even lead to a turtle losing its life. Two problems may arise when turtles are lying at the bottom of the ocean waiting for the weather to warm up.

 First, oxygen levels may plummet, and secondly, the ice may make it hard for turtles to surface and take a breath. When the winter season kicks in, the cold temperature causes the water on top of the pond or river to crystalize into a solid ice block. This ice block prevents oxygen diffusion into the water from the atmosphere.

At the same time, the turtles and other critters in the water are still consuming the oxygen. This means that the amount of oxygen in the water decreases, causing the pond to become hypoxic. Additionally, aquatic animals can drain the oxygen making the pond anoxic.

Luckily, many turtles can survive hypoxic or anoxic conditions by switching to respiration that doesn’t need oxygen. During hibernation, turtles break down blood sugar called glycogen. This process leads to lactic acid build-up within the turtle’s body. Switching to metabolism that doesn’t need oxygen is impressive, but it can be deadly to turtles.

Some turtle species, such as painted turtles, leverage chemicals buried deep into their shell and skeleton to eliminate lactic acid accumulated in their bodies. This allows them to survive for an extended period than other turtles in anoxic and hypoxic conditions.

However, if the oxygen level in the water stays too low for an extended period, the lactic acid formed through anaerobic respiration can overwhelm the turtles causing cramped muscles. This can lead to the turtle’s body shutting down completely and even the reptile losing its life.

How to Make Sure that Your Turtles Hibernate Successfully

Pet turtles are not well adapted to changing temperatures like their counterparts in the wild. However, if they live outdoors, there’s not much you can do to stop them from hibernating. But you can do a few things to ensure that they hibernate successfully.

Here are tips to ensure that your outdoor pet turtles escape the freezing temperatures well:

Don’t Feed Them

Don’t give your turtles food slightly before or after hibernation. When they enter the semi-dormant state during the cold season, they won’t digest or use the food they’ve eaten.

So, the food you give them will stay in their bellies unutilized or sink at the bottom and cause the pond to smell, creating an unconducive environment for your pet turtles. Therefore, when temperatures are consistently below 50, you should stop feeding your pet turtle.

Improve Aeration

One significant problem for turtles when hibernating is the lack of oxygen due to the ice cover on the pond’s surface. While your turtles won’t need food during the winter season, they’ll still need to breathe.

You need to install an aerator to ensure that your turtle’s pond gets the much-needed oxygen from the atmosphere. An aerator will provide an opening where oxygen will diffuse into the water to ensure that the pond doesn’t become hypoxic or anoxic.

You can also aerate your pond manually if you don’t have an aerator. Create holes on the ice block to let oxygen in and allow other harmful gases from the water out. Remember not to use blunt force to break the ice as you might disturb the bromating turtles. You can simply drill holes by melting the ice using a deicer or a hot object. 

What Happens to Turtles When Weather Warms Up?

When the winter months are over, turtles will notice water light and temperature changes in the water and swim to the surface. Since most turtles will have cramped muscles, they’ll need to warm up by basking under the sun to function correctly.

Although turtles need sunlight throughout the warmer months, they often spend more time in the sun when they get out of hibernation to get rid of the lactic acid build-up. Essentially, the sun’s UV rays are great at neutralizing lactic acid formed due to an extended period of having low oxygen levels.

How Do You Take Care of a Pet Turtle in The Winter?

If your pet turtle has an indoor enclosure, you won’t have to worry about freezing temperatures. Since the environment is controlled, you can make a few changes to ensure that they are comfortable during the cold season.

Here is how to prepare your turtle aquarium for winter:

Install a Tank Heater

When it’s freezing outside, you need to keep your pet turtles warm by installing a water heater in the enclosure. The heater ensures that the water stays at the recommended temperature range regardless of the weather.

Cover the Tank with an Insulator

If you live in an area that’s too cold, you can cover the tank using insulation material. However, you need to consult a vet before you do this so that they can advise on the best material to use.

Add a Basking Lamp

Basking is an important part of a turtle’s lifestyle. While turtles in the wild can’t bask in winter, you can provide a basking station for your turtles to help them warm up. You should invest in a UV lamp since UVB rays are vital for a turtle’s growth and survival.


Turtles are real warriors when it comes to surviving freezing temperatures. When winter sets in and temperatures drop below freezing point, these reptiles swim to the bottom of the pond or river and stay there until the temperatures get back to normal.  

During this period, the turtle’s slow down their metabolism through a process known as brumation and draw oxygen from the water through cloacal respiration. If you’re wondering how these creatures get through the cold season, now you know that they vanish underwater and slow down their metabolism until the warm months. 

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