What Do Turtles Do in The Winter?

Turtles have survived through even the most extreme weather conditions. With so many species worldwide, you might be wondering, how do turtles survive in winter?

What Do Turtles Do In Winter?

When winter approaches, turtles begin to look for ideal spots for hibernation. The place could be in a dense collection of leaves, a hole in the ground, a hollow tree, mud, or underwater. Generally, they look for any place that will protect them from the severe winter weather and predators. 

Turtles exist on land and in water. Aquatic turtles are found in seas, rivers, lakes, and other permanent water bodies. Semi-aquatic turtles, known as terrapins, survive on land and in water.

On the other hand, there are land turtles commonly known as tortoises. Now let’s have a look at what do turtles do in winter? How do they survive the cold?

Where Do Aquatic Turtles Go in Winter?

When winter approaches, aquatic turtles like red-eared sliders, painted turtles, and snapping turtles go to a pond or lake for hibernation. 

If unable to locate an excellent underwater area, they will instead burrow the ground and bury themselves. Alternatively, they may find hollow trees or a dense collection of leaves and hide.

There are also cases where turtles that live in ponds and lakes opt to hibernate near the lake instead of inside it.

In such cases, the turtles hibernate in riverbanks where the water gets cold but doesn’t freeze or in mud. This often happens if they feel that the lake is going to freeze.

It is worth noting that while most aquatic turtles hibernate during winter, sea turtles at times behave differently.

Some opt to migrate. They do not leave the water unless when basking or when the females lay eggs on the beach.

The turtles that migrate during winter start moving to warmer areas once their current location starts to feel cold.

They often follow the same route every year. The rest of the sea turtles hibernate and use a similar mechanism to the aquatic species.

An advantage of most reptiles is that their bodies’ metabolism rate decreases with a decrease in temperature.

At a lower metabolism, they need less oxygen to survive. As long as the water remains cold, some aquatic turtles can actually stay beneath the water for several days without a single breath.

In general, aquatic and semi-aquatic turtles will look for any spot that can provide a shield from the winter cold. In addition, the place should hide them from predators throughout the season. 

Where Tortoises Go During Winter?

Terrestrial/land turtles are known as tortoises. They behave almost the same as aquatic turtles during winter. However, since tortoises have no adaptations to water-dwelling, they instead go underground.

When unable to find a suitable underground spot, land turtles will look for caves, hollow trees, burrows, an underground hole, or a collection of dense leaves. The hibernation point they choose has to be safe from the snow, cold, and predators.

Most tortoises don’t have a favorite spot for hibernating. It only needs to meet the above criteria.

Once in hibernation, their metabolic rate starts to decrease till they reach a hibernating metabolic point.

Why Turtles Hibernate?

Turtles are reptiles meaning that they are ectothermic. This means that they cannot regulate their body temperature. The body temperature depends on that of the surroundings. It is part of the reasons why they have a slow pace.

This is unlike humans, who are endotherms. When temperatures decrease, humans dress warmly to stay warm. A drop in our bodies’ temperature indicates an illness. As for turtles, a reduction in temperature leads to a decline in their bodies’ temperature.

With decreasing temperatures, a turtle is unable to maintain high body temperatures. As a result, they have adaptations resulting from millions of years of evolution that enable them to survive despite the decreasing temperatures.

picture of turtle in the snow

Turtle’s Hibernation Process

Hibernation refers to a state in which some animals enter during freezing seasons. During hibernation, the metabolic rate of turtles decreases because they are cold-blooded.

Reduced metabolism means that the turtle will move less and use less energy, and as such, it will not require a lot of food or water. In addition, the turtle is likely to be sleeping when in this state.

When metabolism rate drops, the turtle’s heart also slows down together with other body functions. The heartbeat rate drops from between 40-45 beats per minute to about ten beats per minute.

Because of the significant drop in body functions, a hibernating turtle requires more negligible amounts of oxygen. In addition, depending on where the turtle hibernates, they may not have access to oxygen. They are, however, able to survive without oxygen for several days.

Turtles can hibernate for up to 8 months, depending on the species.

To a great extent, tortoises are able to hibernate due to the reduced metabolic rate. Even so, a low metabolism has its side effects. A prominent side effect is that turtles are unable to excrete lactic acid that instead accumulates in their bodies.

Lactic acid leads to muscle soreness in animals. The vast accumulation makes it even worse for hibernating turtles.

The good thing is that they are able to use calcium and magnesium minerals stored in the body to neutralize lactic acid. Else, these reptiles wouldn’t be able to move after the hibernation period is over.

The disadvantage of using these minerals to neutralize lactic acid is that it reduces the amounts that the body would have utilized for growth.

This slows down the turtles’ growth rate, which is another disadvantage of reduced metabolism.

Growth is vital in turtles because the bigger they are, the higher their chances of survival. This is because more enormous turtles have fewer predators to move more freely in search of food.

Hibernation vs Brumation vs Aestivation

Hibernation is not the only way in which turtles have adapted to survive in cold weather. In addition, winter isn’t the only time when turtles might go into dormancy or reduce their normal activities to survive.

Brumation and aestivation are other types of dormancy turtles might experience when the weather turns cold.

1. Hibernation

As we have seen, hibernation is the behavior exhibited by some animals, including turtles, to survive cold winter. The animals will stay in the mud, burrows, tree hollow, or underneath a dense pile of leaves until the temperatures rise.

Hibernating turtles will exhibit low body temperatures and heart rate and go to sleep.

2. Brumation

Brumation is similar to hibernation, but there are still differences that make the two distinct. One of these key differences is that the turtle goes to sleep during hibernation, while in brumation, they remain awake.

All the body functions begin to slow down in the brumation process, including the heart rate and breathing rate. Similar to hibernation, turtles don’t eat and drink during brumation.

The process begins when the weather gets cold but not too cold for hibernation. Most pet turtles brumate instead of hibernating during winter.

While in brumation, the turtles hardly do anything; they don’t bask or look for prey. They just roam around or sometimes stay in the same place for several hours.

3. Aestivation

Aestivation refers to a behavior exhibited by some animals through which they hide from the extreme weather conditions in the summer. It is similar to hibernation, only that it occurs when the temperatures are extremely high.

Just like the way not all turtles hibernate, aestivation is not done by all turtles. It is only common among those that live in the desert and other scorching environments.

In aestivation, the turtle’s metabolism starts to slow down. They will then dig a hole or burrow in the ground.

The turtles may help also bury themselves in the mud, stay in the water or hide in the substrate around them till the harsh weather passes.

The place they choose to aestivate should be safe from predators and extreme heat. In aestivation, turtles have no room for hydrating, and as such, it is vital that they escape direct sunlight.

Unlike hibernation that may last for several months, aestivation is short-term. It often takes place for a few weeks, and the turtle will become active again once the temperatures start to fall.

Hibernation, brumation, and aestivation processes help turtles to survive during extreme weather conditions.

They also help the animal stay healthy enough to resume normal activities once the temperatures are back to normal.

How Wild Turtles Prepare for Hibernation?

Once winter approaches, wild turtles start preparing for hibernation. They need to be ready before the temperatures drop to a point they can’t move around.

Here are the things turtles do to prepare for winter.

1. Eating Less

Part of the preparation includes eating a lot of nutritious food and drinking plenty of water. But this occurs long before the temperatures start dropping.

When winter approaches, the turtles slowly decrease their appetite as their body temperature declines.

2. Safe Hibernating Area

Turtles also start looking for an area for hibernating. The site needs to be safe from predators and snow.

Because most turtle species are territorial, it is very likely that they already have a spot long before the cold sets in.

In unfortunate cases, other animals might take the turtle’s hibernating area, forcing the reptile to look for another one. This is quite common with turtles that hibernate in burrows and caves.

3. Excrete Waste Products

Turtles will empty their bodies’ waste before it’s winter. Since their body functions slow down during winter, the emptying prevents further slow down due to non-excreted waste.

These reptiles will urinate and defecate more frequently in the weeks prior to hibernation. They use the last sun rays to stimulate the body to release any waste.

4. Hydrate

Due to the frequent excretion of waste products, turtles will be thirstier. As such, they are likely to drink more water during this period.

Being more hydrated also makes the digestion process faster. It also helps them have enough water to survive the hibernation period.

Snapping Turtle Hibernate

How to Prepare Your Pet Turtle for Hibernation?

If winter is approaching and you have noticed that your turtle is eating less and becoming less active, then it might signify that your pet turtle is going into hibernation.

Not all pet turtles should be put to hibernation, here are things to consider before placing a turtle to hibernation.

Things to Consider Before Putting a Pet Turtle in Hibernation

1. Species

Not all turtle species hibernate. The nearer the location is to the equator, the less likely the turtle to hibernate. Their natural habitat does not require them to get into this state of dormancy.

Malaysian box turtle, Chinese box turtle, Gulf Coast box turtle are examples of turtles that don’t hibernate.

Species that hibernate include eastern box turtles, gopher turtles, wood turtles, spotted turtles, snapping turtles, Russian turtles, and spotted turtles.

2. Health Condition

Before putting the turtle in hibernation, ensure that it is in good health condition. Although the body functions slowdown in hibernation, a sick turtle is likely to come out of the state weaker or, unfortunately, not wake up.

Examine the eyes for any discharge or inflammation, the nose for any discharge, the tail for any infection, legs and ears for abscesses or lumps, or yellow discharge in the mouth.

Also, check the shell for any damage or foul smell that could indicate an underlying illness.

If your turtle has any of the above, contact a vet before putting it in hibernation.

3 Spots for Hibernating a Pet Turtle

If you have confirmed that your turtle is reasonable for hibernation, you need to choose the environment. Different places have their ups and downs.

1. Underground Hibernation

This method involves burying in the turtle but close to the surface as it would do in the wild. The turtle has to be a land turtle, i.e., a tortoise; else, it would not survive.

The best type of soil for hibernation is well-drained loam or sandy soil. Avoid dense clay soil. Beneath the ground, a tortoise’s body temperature will not fall below freezing points.

It would be best to make sure that the environment doesn’t get damp, which can harm the tortoise.

Where possible, bury the tortoise in a greenhouse. This eliminates the risk of water. In addition, you should carefully choose a place free from rodents.

2. Hibernation in a Box

The box should have comfortable bedding, air holes, and a substrate. A thermometer is also ideal for monitoring the box’s temperature during hibernation.

If you keep the box outside, choose a spot where the temperatures will not drop to freezing point.

On the other hand, if kept indoors, choose a site where temperatures do not rise above 10 degrees Celsius. This will help you avoid variations in temperature as it significantly affects hibernation.

The box should be big enough to allow the turtle room for turning around and high enough to prevent the turtle from escaping.

3. Hibernation in a Fridge

This final pet turtle hibernation method involves keeping it in a fridge. Since the refrigerator is air-tight, you should provide the turtle with air by opening the refrigerator for a few minutes 4 times a week.

Another thing to do is testing the fridge temperature when empty. If the temperature fluctuates a lot, you should fill the fridge with items to reduce the temperature fluctuations.

The downside to using a refrigerator for hibernation is that temperatures will rise in case of a power outage.

Tips for Preparing Your Turtle for Hibernation

1. Increase its food intake 6-8 Weeks Before

Towards the end of summer, this would be about 6-8 weeks prior to hibernation, increase the food potion you usually feed the pet. In particular, you should increase the food content that is high in fiber, such as grass and hay.

2. Increase Water Intake

Just as with the food, you should ensure that your turtle is well hydrated. Since it will not be feeding or hydrating during hibernation, it needs to have enough in its system for surviving the hibernation period.

3. Reduce Its Food Intake 2-4 Weeks Before

A turtle needs to prepare for hibernation close to how it would while in the wild. Reducing its food intake will ensure that it doesn’t hibernate with undigested food.

This is necessary because digestion also slows down in hibernation, just like with the other body functions.

If your pet has eaten in the last weeks, you should delay its hibernation.

4. Detox the Turtle

In the weeks leading to hibernation, soak the tortoise several times a week in warm water. If your pet is a tortoise, ensure that the water level is low to prevent the pet from drowning.

This, together with proper hydration, will help it expel waste products from its digestive system.

Waking Up Your Pet Turtle

When it’s time to wake up the turtle from hibernation, you need to make it gradual. Remove the turtle from the hibernating environment to an area with ordinary temperatures.

Placing the animal in warm water is also an effective way of slowly waking up them up.

You will know that it is time to wake up the pet if outside temperatures are around 10 degrees Celsius. Another indicator is if the turtle has urinated.

You are also likely to hear the turtle moving in the hibernation area when temperatures start rising.

Should the turtle not wake up, immediately contact a pet to ensure that the pet is not dead.

Tips for Taking Care of Your Turtle After Hibernation

After waking up from hibernation, the tortoise will require assistance to resume eating and drinking. Here are tips to help your turtle resume normalcy.

1. Keep The Turtle Warm

Once out of hibernation, place the pet in a warm, bright area for at least one day. You can use a lamp to warm and provide light to the turtle. 

Sufficient light and heat are necessary to help the turtle start functioning well. They activate the its metabolism in readiness for normal body functions such as moving, eating, digestion, and excretion.

2. Hydration

Turtles will struggle to drink water after hibernation. Even when you place a bowl of water near them, they are less likely to hydrate. As such, you need to use creative ways to keep the pet hydrated, such as warm baths.

3. Warm Baths

Giving the turtle a shallow bath with lukewarm water is one of the most effective ways of encouraging the animal to drink water.

Dip the turtle in the water but ensure that the water levels are below its mouth to prevent drowning.

Leave it to soak for 10 minutes and, where possible, practice this twice a day for a week.

4. Feeding

Warm baths and heating are very crucial in rejuvenating and maintaining the turtle’s appetite. It is best to feed the animal with diced tomatoes, watermelons, cucumbers, and other high-water content foods. It gives them energy and keeps them hydrated.

As the days’ progress, you should introduce foods with high fiber levels. You may also add minerals and vitamins to boost the pet’s immunity after a long period of dormancy.

Contact a vet if the turtle does not resume eating after a week of warm baths and ideal heat and lighting. It could be experiencing post-hibernation anorexia.

Hibernating Tortoise

3 Dangers of Hibernation

We have seen the essence of hibernation for turtles. It is vital for the survival of most species during the icy season. Even so, going into hibernation has its risks. Here are the key dangers a wild turtle faces when it goes into hibernation.

1. Predators

Wild turtles are prone to predators almost everywhere they go. But more so in winter.

Winter is a hungry time for most wild animals because preying becomes harder. Turtles become an easy and convenient catch for some of these animals.

Any predator that is capable of digging on sand or soft soil will find a turtle that is sleeping in a burrow.

While turtles’ shells act as an amour and protect them from predators, some predators have sharp claws and strong jaws that manage to crack the shell.

As such, a turtle might not be able to escape predators while in hibernation.

Baby turtles are more susceptible to predators than mature ones.

2. Drowning

A brumation or hibernation area close to a water body is a risk factor. The turtle can easily drown, especially if melting snow or heavy rain fill in its burrow.

Because turtles are ectotherms, they cannot generate their own heat to help them dry up and warm the body in case their hibernating area is full of water.

3. Freezing

A great hibernating spot should have temperatures above the freezing point. But not all turtles will put this into consideration when choosing the site.

If the turtle is too young, sick, or old, they might be unable to dig deep enough burrows.

Shallow burrows make the turtles be prone to frosting in winter. The frosting makes turtles’ body temperature drop to deficient levels to the extent of death.

Frequently Asked Questions

How Long Do Turtles Hibernate?

Turtles often hibernate for 2-4 months. This duration depends on the surrounding conditions, and the further they are from the equator, the longer the period. Most turtles hibernate between October and February.

Do Pet Turtles Hibernate?

Similar to wild turtles, turtles in captivity do hibernate if the surrounding temperatures drop. However, if the turtle is kept warm during winter, it might not hibernate.

Pet turtles are kept warm using heaters that warm the water in the tank or enclosure.

Pet turtle owners can put in measures to help the pet hibernate.

Do Turtles Eat During Winter?

Wild turtles significantly lower the amounts of food they eat during winter. In most cases, they do not eat or drink at all if they are hibernating.

Which Low Temperatures Can Turtles Survive?

Generally, turtles can survive temperatures above the freezing point. However, when the temperatures get extremely low, they are unable to move.

Consequently, they are unable to look for food, among other crucial activities. Due to this, turtles may not be able to survive freezing temperatures for extended durations.

Can I Wake Up a Hibernating Turtle?

It is not good to wake up a wild tortoise in hibernation. Their bodies respond to the surrounding temperatures, and as such, they know what is best.

Even when you think that the temperatures are warm enough, you should allow the turtle time to wake up. When it is time to do so, their instincts will kick in, and the turtle will undoubtedly wake up.


In winter, turtles go into hibernation. The low temperatures lead to these animals having low body temperatures. Consequently, their bodies’ metabolism rate drops.

A low metabolism rate means that the turtle can function much. They can hardly move, let alone eat or drink. If you find a turtle in hibernation, you should never wake it up.

As a pet turtle owner whose species goes into hibernation, you can help your pet go into hibernation. If unwell, contact a vet before doing so. Hibernation is vital to the survival of this reptile; do not wake up a turtle in hibernation.

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