What Do Turtles Do In The Winter? (How Do They Survive Winter?)

Image of a sleeping sea turtle

Turtles are unique and adaptable creatures. These little creatures adapt well to any environment. Since turtles are cold-blooded animals, they do not fare well in the colder climate. So, you must be wondering, what do turtles do in the winter?

Turtles go into brumation during winter. They slow down their metabolism, which results in lower energy and oxygen consumption. Turtles use cloacal respiration for breathing underwater through their skin. Some species like snapping turtles remain active in the winter, even when ice covers the ponds.

Since turtles are ectotherms, they cannot regulate their body temperature. Hence, their bodies do not produce enough energy to keep them warm in the cold. However, these little creatures are true fighters and find a solution for their survival. So, let’s understand in detail how turtles adapt themselves in winter.

Do Turtles Hibernate In The Winter?

Turtles are among the few species that possess unique abilities to survive in the harshest weather. During the winter, when the temperature drops drastically in some regions, turtles move slower than usual. They do this to conserve energy until the winter passes.

Since turtles are cold-blooded animals, they find it difficult to move their limbs and digest food in extreme cold. Besides, it isn’t easy to find adequate food during winter. Hence, it only makes sense for them to find a suitable place to survive the winter.

Turtles usually dig a burrow that gets them below the frost line. Or else, they find a secure place under a thick bed of rotting leaves. Turtles then become inactive and stop eating. We generally call it hibernation. However, in the case of reptiles, this state is known as brumation. Hibernation is related to mammals.

Brumation is a process in which reptiles such as turtles slow down during cold winters. They are not into a sleeping state but rather slow down their metabolism to eat less and conserve energy. They remain alert to weather changes and become active immediately once the spring season arrives.

Turtles can survive the coldest winter due to their unique ability of cloacal respiration. In simple terms, cloacal respiration refers to breathing through the butt. This respiration is not optimal. However, it gives the turtles ample energy to survive underwater during the winter.

With so many breeds of turtles worldwide, there are different habits that these creatures possess during winter. Some turtle species are more tolerant than others. At the same time, certain breeds are native to places where the climate is not too cold. Therefore, they do not go into brumation.

On the other hand, species like snapping and painted turtles go into brumation underwater. They remain submerged under the ice of frozen lakes and ponds, where the water is usually warm. Sometimes, you may even find a snapping turtle moving under the ice.

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Where Do Turtles Go In The Winter?

Most of the reptiles, including turtles, have an advantage that mammals and birds do not. Turtles’ metabolism drops as their body temperature drops. This means they require less oxygen to survive than usual.

You will find many aquatic turtles residing in the mud or under the bank where the water is cold, but it does not freeze during winter. Some turtles can actually stay underwater for many days without taking a breath, as long as the water remains cold. This is mainly because many turtle species can absorb oxygen from the water through their tissues in the tail and throat. During extreme cold, turtles retreat to underground burrows. These burrows serve as natural caves to safeguard them from cold as well as potential predators.

The leatherback turtles, which are the world’s largest turtles, nest in the tropics. They travel into the Arctic Ocean during the summer. These turtles are blessed with various mechanisms that help them stay warm, even in frozen water. They have a thick layer of body fat for insulation and possess blood vessels in their fins that help to replace cold blood with warm blood. Also, leatherback turtles are giant, meaning they have a big body that loses heat slowly.

Now coming to sea turtles, they have a completely different approach for surviving the winter. They don’t live where it’s icy. Green sea turtles and loggerhead turtles lay their eggs on the beach when it’s summer. The hatchling sea turtles then crawl towards the sea in late summer before the water becomes frigid and unbearable. So, most sea turtles spend their lives in temperate zones during the warm seasons.

On the other hand, pond turtles do not go into brumation. They remain active and aware of the change in the temperature. They slow down their metabolism to conserve energy for surviving the winter.

What Do Box Turtles Do In The Winter?

All animals have evolved in various ways to deal with the freezing winter. As winter begins, box turtles enter into a state of dormancy. They become completely inactive and go to sleep.

During winter, box turtles dig deeper into the ground as the temperature starts to fall. Most North American box turtles eat less and become less active. They search for places to hide or burrow themselves to stay safe around September or October. For them, brumation begins around mid-October.

Similarly, eastern box turtles brumate by digging into soft soil and burrowing themselves.

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Where Do Lake Turtles Go In The Winter?

Lake turtles become dormant in winter. They lie beneath the lake surface and become inactive. They do not hibernate the entire winter.

Just like other turtle species, lake turtles also lower their metabolism. Though inactive, lake turtles remain alert to changes in temperature and light that signal the coming spring.

How Do Turtles Survive The Winter?

Turtles exhibit a variety of incredible adaptations that enable them to survive the extreme winter conditions. Turtles are ectotherms, meaning their body temperature is determined by their environment.

If the water is cold, the internal temperature of the turtle also becomes cold. Being cold-blooded actually helps the turtles to survive the winter. Their metabolism slows down as their body temperature lowers. Slow metabolism means turtles need less food and oxygen to survive.

Turtles have lungs and hence need oxygen to breathe. However, in winter, their oxygen needs drop considerably. During winter, turtles do not surface out of the water to breathe. Instead, they rely on cloacal respiration.

Through cloacal respiration, turtles absorb the oxygen from the water through their skin. They have a cloaca with many blood vessels that help them take in oxygen from the water. Since their need for oxygen is sufficed, they don’t need to use their lungs for breathing.

The majority of the freshwater turtle species survive the winter by submerging themselves in water. They rely on the stored energy and cloacal respiration for surviving the winter. Only a few species can survive by being completely frozen. So, you may find many turtles diving below the frost line of a pond, where the temperature remains consistent.

These turtles occasionally swim to the surface for oxygen or food. However, most of them generally remain submerged in the water until spring.

When oxygen depletes in the water during extreme winter conditions, snapping and painted turtles sometimes resort to anaerobic respiration. This is a form of metabolism that does not require oxygen. However, this respiration has its own disadvantages.

Anaerobic respiration can lead to a build-up of lactic acid, which damages the turtles’ tissues. To prevent the damage, turtle shells and skeletons release carbonate buffers. This helps the turtles neutralize the lactic acid build-up. As soon as spring arrives, these turtles become desperate to bask in the sunlight. They then increase their metabolic rate and get rid of all the acidic by-products from their body.

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How To Keep Turtles Warm In The Winter?

It’s common for turtles to go into brumation during winter. It is a natural process for them as it slows down their metabolism for surviving the cold weather. However, in captivity, you can avoid this brumation state by keeping your turtle active.

You need to ensure that your turtle is not feeling too cold with the dropping outside temperature. For that, it is essential to keep it warm.

Given below are the various ways to keep a turtle warm in the winter.

1. Create warm conditions.

The best way to keep your turtle warm is to provide it with an enclosure that has an ambient temperature similar to a warm summer day. Also, during the night, ensure that the temperature does not fall considerably.

During winter, it is most likely that your turtle may go into the brumation state. To avoid this, you need to install some form of additional heating to keep it warm.

There are various ways to keep your turtle warm. Some of the widely used ways are listed below:

  • You can keep the central heating on low in your turtle’s room during the night.
  • You can have UVB lighting installed to provide extra warmth to your turtle.
  • You can also use a tubular heater attached to a thermostat.
  • There is a possibility that the atmosphere can become too dry in these conditions. So, you can provide some humidity by keeping lots of plants around. Besides, you can keep water dishes inside your turtle’s enclosure, and you can pour little water on the substrate daily.

2. Provide sufficient bright lighting.

Providing sufficient bright lighting is another way to keep turtles warm in the winter. For that, you can place your turtle’s enclosure near the window, where it can receive plenty of natural light from the sun.

Also, bright light will make your turtle experience summertime. You can also provide warmth with additional light bulbs if sunlight is not sufficient.

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3. Give bath.

You can bathe your turtle with warm water for around 15 to 20 minutes to keep it active. Bathing in warm water helps in warming the body. Besides, you can keep your turtle active in the winter by providing it with an interesting setup.

You can keep various objects inside the turtle’s enclosure for it to walk on. The more your turtle is active, the warmer it will feel.

4. Feed adequately.

During winter, it is essential to provide adequate healthy and varied food to your turtle.

Once your turtle wakes up in the morning, do not allow it to go to the coolest place. Instead, you can put it under the basking lamp to keep its body temperature up. This will also help in digestion.

Along with food, you should also provide adequate drinking water to keep the turtle hydrated.