What Do Turtles Do In The Winter? Do They Hibernate Or Migrate?

what do turtles do in the winter

Turtles are reptiles that can survive both on land and the water, just like the amphibians. When we house a turtle or get curious about the turtles, we ask several questions how do they swim? Do turtles drown? How do they breathe underwater? What do turtles do in the winter? Do they hibernate like amphibians?

Well! If you have landed on this page, then you might already house a turtle or contemplating the idea of having one, or you are here just out of curiosity.

What Do Turtles Do in the Winter?

What do turtles do in the winter that’s entirely dependent on the turtle species you are keeping as a pet. Usually, box turtles dig into the leaf litter and soil to continue with their brumation. 

Turtles do not hibernate; instead, they brumate. What is brumation? Brumation is the process of reptiles going for dormancy during the cold weather. 

However, pond turtles are not at all fond of brumating. They prefer to remain aware during the entire wintertime. But as their metabolism tends to slow down, they eventually become inactive. They survive the winter just the same as your Goldfish.

Nevertheless, they remain alert during the entire brumating span and stay highly cautious about the changes in water temperature and light even though they are inactive. 

Sometimes, during the brumating period, they tend to get a bit active on warm sunny days and sunbathe themselves on logs. 

The red-eared slider turtles prefer basking in the sun only when the temperature is comparatively high in the winter season. Thus, though turtles brumate, they do exhibit limited movement during winter.

On the contrary, the snapping turtles remain highly active throughout the winter season, even in the ice-covered pond.

Sometimes, their brumating behavior can become a cause of concern to the pet owners; the turtles may disappear for few months as they find a place on their own and brumate and resurge when the temperature rises.


Do Turtles Migrate or Hibernate in the Winter?

Precisely what do turtles do in the winter?  Do they hibernate or migrate? As turtles are cold-blooded animals, I mean, literally, they are cold. As an ectotherm species, they cannot regulate their own body temperature, relying on the external heat source, such as heat from the Sun. 

Hence, when the chilly winter approaches with its dark and cold days, it becomes difficult for them to stay active and brisk in their usual way. Their survival during the cold months lies in the connection between the body temperature and their metabolism.

Most turtles remain underwater during the winter season. They do not migrate from one area to another, but they migrate from the land to water to continue their brumation. The fascinating thing is that these creatures can live up to 100 days underwater. 

How do they do it? 

A turtle’s body temperature follows its external environment, being an ectothermic species. A cold turtle has a slow metabolism; the colder it gets, the slower its metabolism, meaning lower energy consumption and lower oxygen demand. Usually, turtles swim closer to the pond’s bottom in the winter, under the frozen surface area; they spend their winter in the water as the underwater temperature is much stable and above freezing during this time. 

But as the water temperature keeps falling below the freezing temperature, these turtles cannot remain active for an extended period down there. Consequently, such kind of inactivity during the wintertime is prevalent amongst them. 

However, only some part of the population exhibits brumating behavior during the winter months when it comes to sea turtles. Others tend to migrate to the warmer part of the oceans. Those turtles that prefer to hibernate dig some inches inside the mud, make a nice cozy place to relax, and stay inactive there.


How Do Turtles Breathe Underwater?

We all know turtles can seamlessly survive both underwater and on the land. But, Turtles cannot breathe underwater; they have lungs and breathe air. Hence, they need to rise to the surface quite often to breathe oxygen from the air.

However, these turtles brumate on the stored energy and extract the necessary oxygen from the water during this period using their blood vessels. 

The largest concentration of blood vessels on the turtles’ body is located on their cloacal region, also known as cloaca! So, this way of intaking oxygen is known as cloacal respiration, which is very much prominent among turtles. 

The intake of oxygen through the cloaca may not be as significant as taking oxygen through veins. But it is still sufficient oxygen to offer the turtles adequate fuel to survive through the winter months underwater.
When the oxygen level depletes in the water, turtles switch to anaerobic breathing; in this state, they can switch to metabolizing without oxygen, just like anaerobic bacterias do; however, when they change to anaerobic breathing, the hitch is the build-up of lactic acid makes them one giant clump of muscle when they emerge out in the spring.
After long winter months, as such, they yearn to bask under the Sun, build their metabolism, and get rid of the build-up lactic acid and its by-products from their system.

Due to the cold-water temperature, their metabolism slows down significantly. Hence, the low metabolism rate of your turtles makes them require much lesser energy and a lower level of oxygen, which gets sufficiently fulfilled through cloacal respiration.

In humans, a change in the body temperature is a sign of disorder; however, with the turtles, a change in the body temperature means simple survival mechanics adapting itself to the environmental weather. 


How Do Turtles Hibernate?

Turtles come up with a unique hibernation strategy for surviving the chilly winter days. Their hibernation is not similar to other cold-blooded animals like snakes or lizards. Instead, their hibernation method, known as brumation, is unique by nature; As their body temperature entirely depends on their environment temperature; on a warmer day during the winter, a turtle may emerge out and bask under the Sun.
So, the turtles do not entirely go for a deep sleep like that of hibernation. They slow down the motion to a great extent but can still move a little.
They start to brumate at the fall; the cooling of the air encourages them to slow down their metabolic rate and thereby lower the need for food and oxygen.
In general, a turtle’s average heartbeat remains around 25 beats per minute; however, with a reduced oxygen supply environment, it can drop down to 10 beats a minute; and when the air or water chills down, its heartbeat further drops down to 1 beat a minute.
In this way, Turtles can sustain themselves for an extended period at near-freezing temperatures.

How Does Pond/ Water Turtle Hibernate?

As winter approaches, the aquatic turtles in ponds or lakes tend to settle at the bottom. Also, they prefer to dig into the mud near the bottom area of the lake or river in search of warmth as the temperature remains more or less stable throughout the winter months. They partially cover themselves and prefer to rest on the pond’s floor to stay calm and inactive. 


How Do Land Turtles Hibernate?

snapping turtle hibernation

The land turtles usually spend their winter in a dormant state. The turtles burrow into substrates. Their bodies tend to shut down, and their organs start becoming motionless; the substrate insulates them from freezing. Thus, encouraging them to have the minimum exerts possible to sustain themselves during the winter. 

Until their hibernation is complete, these land turtles refuse to make any movement. The hibernation can even last for 100+ days.

How Do Pet Turtles such as Box Turtle Hibernate?

In nature, the box turtles burrow themselves into piles of grass clippings, leaves, twigs, hedge cuttings, and other garden wastes. The brumation period typically starts in the middle of fall when the temperature begins to dip down to 50°F (10°C). 

Typically, turtles keep their back of their shell exposed while burrowing themselves into the substrate or piles of garden wastes.


How Can You Help Turtles Hibernate?

If you have a pet turtle, your probing over what do turtles do in the winter is pretty relevant; your probing is not just out of curiosity; it’s also part of the turtle care sheet.

In nature, the turtles find their nooks and brumate during the winter months. However, a pet turtle might need your assistance to brumate.

But wait! Just because you have a turtle, that does not mean it will require brumation. You need to research the species you have and know if it brumates. 

You might want to visit your Vet to the health of your turtle before encouraging brumation; if your turtle’s metabolism is not quite up to the mark, it’s better not to incite your rock to brumate as a prolonged sleeping state might kill your pet rock. 

Most vets will recommend keeping your indoor turtles inside your home and let them stay active throughout the winter. Aquatic turtles can easily brumate outdoors as long as it remains safe and the water stays above freezing. However, for terrestrial or semi-aquatic turtles, you can make them brumate both outdoors and indoors. 

The land turtle usually burrows themselves into the substrate or your garden piles with the back of their shell exposed while the limbs up to the shell opening are covered in the substrate or garden piles. To protect your turtle from other animals such as rodents, etc., during outdoor brumation, you could build a pile of dry leaves and twigs over the exposed part of the turtle.

Keep watch over the temperature; you could use a thermometer to measure the temperature where your turtle is brumating. If the temperature dips down below 39°F (4°C), then you would want to move your brumating turtle indoor in a box because, at 39°F (4°C), the water molecules start to change its form.


How to Take Care of a Hibernating Turtle?

To provide proper care for your pet turtles, you would want to help them undergo and sustain an easy hibernating process. So, here is how you can take good care of them. 

  • Weigh your pet turtle; you need to track its weight during the entire hibernation period to know if it is keeping healthy or not. 
  • Feed your pet an adequate amount of Vitamin A during the summer, which will help them have a healthy brumation during the wintertime.
  •  Increase the fiber content in their diet with foods like alfalfa and timothy hay.
  • Before brumation, let your turtle go on fasting for about 2-4 weeks to prevent indigestion in them.
  • Dip your aquatic turtle every second day for about 20-30 minutes in chin-deep water. 
  • Before brumation, it is essential to decrease the water temperature to help the turtle achieve an optimum metabolism rate. 
  • You can use a fridge for indoor brumation or choose a place where your turtle will feel completely safe from predators.
  • Check your pet regularly to keep it cautious and reactive. 
  • You can also prepare an insulating box to help your turtles stay healthy in it during brumation. 


How to Make Sure Your Turtle Indeed is Hibernating and Not Dead?

If you have a turtle, and it is understandable, your anxiety over your turtle is whether or not hibernating or dead; this might incite you to check on your beloved brumating rock.

So, to ensure the well-being of your turtle, follow these simple steps.


  • Have a close look at their back legs and tail area. If you can see a pumping movement, then it is alive. 
  • First, you could nudge your pet to check if it’s still alive or not. Poke it gently; see if it responds or not, turtles can hiss when they are disturbed or endangered.
  • In case the turtle is dead, a foul odor will come out from its body. 
  • You can put gentle pressure on its cloacal area to see if it’s reacting or not.


Can a Turtle Freeze to Death?

Well! Studies prove turtles do not freeze to death so quickly!

Adult turtles do not survive when their environment goes to 32°F (0° C); that is why the turtles swim down to the floor of the pond or lake or swamp where the temperature remains above freezing to brumate.

When the temperature dips below 32°F (0° C), the body fluids crystalize, and the molecules expand, leading to the turtle’s death; so, it’s wise to bring your pet rock indoor to brumate when the temperature starts to go below 39°F (4° C) as the water molecules begin to change its state from liquid to solid.
However, studies conducted by UCLA demonstrate baby-painted turtles freezes solid and thaws themselves when the temperature starts to warm up as long as it’s not tramped or cracked.
Never try to save a brumating turtle underwater, as moving them from the water above 32°F (0° C) can expose them to cold winter air and freeze them to death.

Tortoises usually need a temperature of around 38-48℉ to survive during the brumation period. If the water temperature goes below 38℉ for a long time, the turtles can freeze to death. However, even if they don’t die, this low temperature can easily make them blind or cause damage to their tissue permanently.


Related Readings:

Can My Turtle Drown? How Long Can A Turtle Hold Its Breath?

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