Do Turtles Hibernate? Find Out What Species Don’t!

May 3, 2021

Do turtles hibernate

Do turtles hibernate is an interesting question with many vague answers. While researching the relationship between turtles and hibernation, I came across much scattered and half-baked information that’s impossible to skim through. So, here’s your one-stop solution with all the answers you’re looking for. 

Do Turtles Hibernate?

Yes, turtles hibernate in the winter when food and water are scarce. However, not all species do. It all depends on the latitudinal location. The general standard is that the farther from the equator the species occurs naturally, the more likely they will hibernate—similarly, the closer to the equator, the less likely they will hibernate. 

Among captive turtles, the most notable species that will try to hibernate are Red-eared sliders, Box turtles, Wood turtles, Snapping turtles, Painted turtles, and Spotted turtles. 

On the other hand, tropical turtle species like American Wood turtles and Arrau Turtles don’t hibernate. However, they do slow down when the weather gets cold and the temperature drops.

Suppose you have a tropical turtle, but you don’t live in the tropics. In that case, you need to create an artificially warm and humid environment to survive winter. 

A humidity gauge like this one Repti Zoo will help you better take care of their needs. 

Do Sea Turtles Hibernate?

Green and Black sea turtles from the subtropical lagoons are known to burrow in the mud and hibernate through the bleak winter to slow their metabolism. Loggerheads are known to migrate to warmer areas to hibernate for some time during the coldest months. 

Do turtles hibernate is a tricky question when it comes to sea turtles. There are seven existing species of sea turtles today. And they’re known to be among the most highly migratory creatures on the planet. Thus, due to enormous difficulties in tracking and following through, not much has been discovered about their hibernation pattern. 

For all we know, some species like Green sea turtles hibernate while others don’t. Also, in chilly months, Loggerheads reportedly submerge for up to 7 hours at a time, coming to the surface only for a few minutes to breathe.

How Long Do Turtles Hibernate? 

Most turtles don’t hibernate throughout the winter, although some are known for up to eight full months. Once again, it all depends on the latitudinal location. Species native to the regions near the equator hibernate for a short period, while those occurring farther go for deeper and longer slumbers. 

In fact, some species that live in extremely cold climates have growing seasons of just three months! What about the rest of the 9 months? They slow down and usually hibernate.

Now let’s look at the hibernation period for some popular species.

Collage of turtle

When Do Red-Eared Sliders Hibernate?

In nature, Red-eared Sliders usually hibernate at the bottoms of shallow lakes and ponds around October, when the temperature drops below 10 °C (50 °F). They emerge from hibernation with the onset of spring around March. 

When Do Painted Turtles Hibernate? 

Painted turtles naturally living in the northern regions hibernate from October to March. When hibernating, their body temperature usually clocks in around 6°C (43°F). However, those native to the southernmost parts of the United States typically don’t hibernate at all.

When Do Mud Turtles Hibernate? 

Mud turtles from the northeastern US, like New York, hibernate from September to April or May under a shallow layer of mud. However, those indigenous to the southern states like Texas have a considerably shorter hibernation period. 

When Do Box Turtles Hibernate?

Most box turtles naturally live in areas that require them to hibernate for around 3 to 4 months every year. Most North American box turtles enter the hibernation stage around mid-October. 

But those that experience southeastern US winters like Florida Box Turtle and Gulf Coast Box turtle rarely hibernate. 

Also, captive Box turtles seldom hibernate. If you have rescued an adult Box turtle from the wild, he might try to hibernate even when going doesn’t get tough in an artificially controlled environment. 

When Do Snapping Turtles Hibernate? 

Depending on the region and species, Snapping turtles may hibernate or simply remain dormant for around 5-6 months. In areas that don’t experience harsh winters, snapping turtles may not enter hibernation as they’re incredibly cold-tolerant.

However, in areas with long and cold winters, snapping turtles can hibernate for as long as six months, usually starting from October.

As you read above, the hibernation duration varies among species depending on where they come from. Some northern species live in the south as captive pets and vice versa. 

When Do Turtles Stop Hibernating?

The answer differs for wild and captive turtles. But most species emerge from hibernation around March, when the days start getting longer and the weather a bit warmer. They’ll usually move around, forage, and go on with their day-to-day activities when the temperature is between 60-70°F (15-20°C).

You should never force your pet reptile to go into hibernation or stop them from going. Make sure that you do your research and discuss with fellow turtle owners in your locality. As a responsible pet parent, you have to facilitate this unique phenomenon for your turtle.

Okay, enough on do turtles hibernate and for how long. Now let’s see why they hibernate! 

Relevant Readings:

Can Pet Turtles Drown? Learn How To Revive A Drowned Turtle.

Turtle Swollen Eyes | 5 Effective Remedies For Your Turtle’s Swollen Eyes

Do Painted Turtles Hibernate In Captivity? 9-Step Guide To Help Your Turtle Hibernate

Why Do Turtles Hibernate? 

Turtles are ectotherms that rely on external heat for warmth. If the environment is at 1°C, so is the turtle’s body. Thus, turtles hibernate because they are susceptible to cold, and their diets are threatened by winter. Hibernation is a measure turtles have been adapting and following for millions of years to survive cold winters. 

When the mercury drops, their bodies get so cold that they can barely keep themselves warm, let alone move or forage. The colder the temperature, the harder it’s for turtles to maintain adequate body temperatures. 

How Do Turtles Hibernate?

Turtles use some of the most fascinating mechanisms we know to surpass winter seasons. From using the rear end to breathe and forgoing oxygen together to using their shells as “Tums” to alleviate muscle cramps, a turtle’s hibernation process is genuinely nature’s marvel. 

As soon as the first gust of winter air hits, turtles immediately start searching for an ideal place to rest for the next several months. This process usually begins around September for most turtle species, and they officially start hibernating by October. 

In the wild, studies have shown that almost all turtle species choose to hibernate in wetland locations that hover right above freezing. 

How Do Land Turtles Hibernate?

Once turtles find softer earth in a safe spot, they’ll start digging with their strong claws. Turtles are pretty adept at digging skills. They can go as deep as possible to deter possible attacks from raccoons, dogs, and other predators. 

Land turtles also often prefer areas that provide a certain level of camouflage, like overgrown weeds and foliages. 

How Do Aquatic Turtles Hibernate?

Semi-aquatic and aquatic turtles that make their home in the water usually have the exact hibernation needs as their terrestrial cousins. However, they go to the bottom of shallow water bodies like a pond to find the perfect spot and burrow under the debris. 

Once the turtle finally starts settling in the water, the bodily functions go through some amazing changes. For instance, the turtle will stop breathing through his lungs! 

And that brings us to our next question! Read below! 

How Do Turtles Breathe During Hibernation?

Turtles rely on their nares and lungs to breathe air from the surface. So, how do they breathe when they’re living in a frigid pond with a thick lid of ice stopping them from coming up for air?

They breathe through their butts, also known as the cloaca. 

Cloaca is an opening in the turtle’s rear end with an exceptionally high density of blood vessels, which allows it to absorb oxygen from the water. The expanding and contracting muscles force water in and out of the cloaca. Thus, in this way, turtles get just enough oxygen to support their needs. 

Some species, like musk turtles, are even known to intake oxygen into the blood vessels from the throat cavity. Interesting, right?

Can Hibernating Turtles Breathe Without Oxygen?

The constant availability of oxygen in ponds during winter isn’t guaranteed. Over the winter, the pond may become hypoxic (lowly oxygenated) or even anoxic (depleted of oxygen). 

In that case, they resort to another unique breathing method that doesn’t even require oxygen. 

In the absence of oxygen, turtles hibernating underwater resort to anaerobic respiration, which uses fats stored during the summer months. This helps to maintain the turtle’s low metabolism and cell function needs but comes at a cost. It results in a buildup of lactic acid. 

Usually, the turtle’s shell releases carbonates into their systems to neutralize acid and prevent it from becoming deadly. However, it works if there’s too much secretion of lactic acid, which will then build upon their tissues. 

That being said, some turtles have a higher threshold than others. For example, both painted turtles and snapping turtles can live through forced submergence in cold water temperatures for over 100 days. 

Thereby, when emerging from hibernation, most anaerobic turtles come out as one big cramped muscle. They need to soak up a lot of sunlight and heat to trigger the metabolism and eliminate these acidic byproducts. 

In my opinion, I have pretty much covered everything you need to know on “do turtles hibernate” and the science behind it. Now let’s move on to our next section – caring for a hibernating turtle. 

8-Step Guide To Help Your Pet Turtle Hibernate 

From researching the hibernation pattern of your turtle to feeding tailored diets and hydrating, there are several measures you need to take to prepare your beloved pet for reptiles for hibernation. Weighing frequently, consulting a vet, and lowering the temperature gradually are other vital steps you can’t miss. 

Have a brief look at them one-by-one: 

Understand Your Turtle Species 

As you know already, not all turtle species hibernate. Also, some that hibernate in the wild often don’t do so in captivity – for example, box turtles. In addition to researching the species, also study the turtle’s physical signs like lethargy and lost appetite to determine if your pet will hibernate or not. 

If you are confused, you can always look for help in local turtle forums, or even better – call your vet. 

Book An Appointment With A Vet

Not all turtles qualify for hibernation. Only healthy ones do. 

During hibernation, the bodily functions and immune system drop to the lowest – making the turtle vulnerable to various diseases. If your turtle becomes sick during hibernation, chances are that he’ll never wake up. 

Thus, getting your pet assessed by a qualified vet and getting his expert opinion is extremely important. 

Weigh Your Turtle Frequently 

Turtles often shed some pounds during hibernation. As an owner, you have to track the weight fluctuation to see if he’s losing weight healthily or not. I often weigh my pet once every two weeks before and during hibernation. 

I’d suggest using a digital scale since they’re more accurate. 

Here’s one I use by Etekcity. 

It allows me to create a designated profile for my turtle and seamlessly track recent progress. 

Incorporate Vitamin A And Fiber In Diet 

Feeding a diet enriched with Vitamin A around 12-16 weeks before hibernation, around summer, is crucial. You can give leafy greens like kales, squash, collard greens, and veggies like carrots and squash. 

And towards the end of summer, around 6-8 weeks before hibernation, replace portions of regular feed with fiber-rich alternatives like alfalfa and timothy hay. 

Fast Your Turtle 

It’s essential to rightly fast your turtle because going into hibernation with food in the digestive tract can be straight-up fatal. The food can decay and cause deadly bacterial infections. On the other hand, the decomposed food can also form big clouds of gas that will internally press on the pet’s lungs and suffocate it. 

You will have to fast your turtle at least 2-3 weeks before hibernation, but it’s always best to ring your vet and seek expert advice. 

Hydrate Your Turtle 

Once the fasting period begins, don’t forget to soak your turtle in chin-deep water for around 20-30 minutes every day. It’s also vital to ensure your pet constantly has access to water from now on until hibernation. 

Why? This will help your pet expel any waste from the digestive tract and remain hydrated. 

Gradually Lower The Temperature 

Once you make sure that the digestive tract is empty, the next step is to gradually lower the temperature. You can start this process around a week before hibernation. For the first 2-3 days, maintain the temperature at 65°F (18°C).

Next, lower it to 60°F (15°C) for another 2-3 days before finally settling at 50°F (10°C).

Decide Where Your Pet Will Hibernate 

Depending on your location and the turtle’s needs, you can choose between indoor and outdoor hibernation for your pet. There’s a lot of nitty-gritty involved with indoor hibernation in a fridge. Likewise, you have to be super vigilant about predators outdoors. 

This brings us to our next topic of our ‘do turtles hibernate’ series. Next, I’ll tell you everything about preparing the right spot and atmosphere for your turtle to hibernate. 

How To Prepare For Turtle’s Indoor Hibernation? 

Most turtle owners use a fridge for indoor hibernation. Make sure to pick a relatively cooler location of your house that’s also quieter and more secluded. Since fridges are completely air sealed, you need to ensure proper ventilation. For this, you can open the fridge door about 3 times a week for 2-3 minutes. 

It’s also critical to test the temperature time and again. If you come across any irregularity in temperature, you can fill the fridge with other stuff like water bottles to hold the temperature more steadily. 

Lastly, make sure that you don’t open the fridge door too many times a day as it can deregulate the temperature. 

To wake your turtle from hibernation, gently place him in a warm room.

How To Prepare For Turtle’s Outdoor Hibernation?

You can either pick an area within the pen or a different spot for your turtle’s outdoor hibernation. Either way, make sure that it’s escape-proof and safe from prying eyes. First of all, you need to make sure the soil is soft and loose – not wet. Next, dig the ground so that it’s below the standard freezing line. 

In most cases, digging 2 feet will suffice. But for northern areas like Wisconsin, you will need to dig at least 3-4 feet to be safe. You can then add a box without a top or bottom in the hole and insulate it. You can use packing foam or polystyrene for insulation. 

Refill it with loose dirt, dried leaves, and peat moss before introducing your turtle to his new burrow. 

Don’t forget to line the walls with mesh to reduce the chances of escape and create an enclosure around the pit. And if you want to go all out, put bricks or cement blocks along the two edges of the burrow and lay boards across them. 

Waking up your turtle from outdoor hibernation is a tricky business because it’s less predictable. Usually, they’ll emerge themselves once the weather gets warmer. 

How To Ensure Pet Turtle Is Hibernating And Not Dead?

When my turtles first started hibernating, my anxiety levels would be out the roof. They’d look eerily still, and I’d often confuse them for a pair of dead turtles. Over time, I have learned how to make sure the turtle’s hibernating and not dead. Keep reading, and you’ll know too. 

The most common methods to ensure the pet turtle is hibernating and not dead are stimulating the legs and tail, applying pressure to the cloaca, and smelling the turtle. Some also tend to put the turtle in the water to see if it floats, but that’s a tricky thing to execute – so I wouldn’t suggest it. 

Stimulate The Turtle 

Hibernating turtles can still feel disturbances like being picked up or prodded. You can try to stimulate them gently by touching their tail or legs. If the turtle is alive, he will wiggle his tails and legs gently. 

Your turtle may also retract to the shell or make a hissing sound in response to the stimulation. Make sure that you don’t pick your turtle abruptly or handle it roughly. 

Stimulate The Cloaca 

If your turtle still doesn’t respond, you can try stimulating the cloaca area. Gently apply pressure using your index finger in the space between cloaca and tail. Since this area is far too sensitive than his tail or legs, you can expect a reaction from your pet. 

Smell the turtle 

Dead turtles produce a foul smell as they decompose. The odor starts getting really intense after a day or two. However, in colder temperatures, it may take some time more. Either way, you won’t be able to ignore the strong smell. 

Conclusion On Do Turtles Hibernate?

That was a really long article, wasn’t it? I wanted to make sure that you find all the information on your turtle’s hibernation patterns and needs in one place. 

I’ll quickly explain the main bits in a nutshell for a quick recap. 

So, do turtles hibernate? Yes, turtles hibernate. And their hibernation style is one of the most beguiling survival tactics present in the animal kingdom. From breathing through the butt to fasting for prolonged periods, it’s truly amazing to know and behold. 

But it’s important to note that not all turtle species hibernate. Usually, turtle species native to regions near the equator do not hibernate or only hibernate for a short timeframe. On the other hand, those living farther from the equator hibernate for a long time – as long as 8 months. 

As for captive turtles, not all of them go into hibernation. And if your turtle does, you need to be super careful about your turtle’s needs and bodily changes. Ensure that you thoroughly go through the steps mentioned above on how to help your turtle hibernate and create a safe place, indoor or outdoor, to facilitate it. 

Read Next:

How Long Can Red-Eared Sliders Be Out Of Water? Can They Survive Without Water?

Turtle and Fish Together? These 3 Species Can Be Your Best Bets!

Do Red-Eared Sliders Bite? Be Careful In These 6 Situations!

rohit gurung author at urbanfishkeeping

About Rohit Gurung

My never-ending love and fascination with Aquascaping started when I received a red-eared turtle for my 10th birthday.

Apart from researching and writing, I spend hours gazing at my 3 turtles. And yeah, I bask alongside them too.