Turtles are funny little reptiles who carry their homes around on their backs as they move along at their incredibly slow pace. If you own one of these reptiles as a pet, then you have probably done your homework and know that turtles are cold-blooded creatures. Meaning, they do not fare well in the colder weather of the winter months because they rely on the sun’s warmth. Knowing this may also have you wondering how turtles manage during the winter and whether they hibernate or not.
For the turtles who do become inactive and take to hibernation during the winter, their process is incredibly interesting. Unlike any other reptile or animal who hibernates for that matter. This is especially important to know if you own a turtle as a pet and live in a region that experiences long, cold winter times.
Why Do Turtles Hibernate?
Turtles are reptiles, meaning they are also ectotherms. “Ectotherm” is a term that means that the creature is cold-blooded and cannot regulate its own body temperature very easily. This is the reason why they move notoriously slow. Their bodies do not produce enough energy to keep warm, let alone move at a faster pace.
The colder their environment gets, the harder it is for turtles to maintain adequate body temperatures. This leads them to take certain measures that hundreds of years of evolution and adaptation have prepared them for.
The drastic drop in temperature during the winter months causes turtles to move slower than ever. Leading them to do what they need to do to conserve what little energy they do have while the winter passes.
How Do Turtles Hibernate?
The unique biological mechanisms that turtles possess that help them to hibernate and survive the cold winters are rather impressive. Turtles are one of the very few species that have the unique survival abilities that they do.
When they sense the winter weather rolling in, turtles begin looking for the ideal place to spend their time hibernating for the next few months. This process usually begins around September so that they can officially hunker down underwater by October.
How do they remain underwater for months at a time without breathing, you might be wondering? This is possible because of the previously mentioned unique characteristic that turtles have. Turtles are capable of “cloacal respiration”, which simply put, is having the ability to “breathe from one’s butt”.
Obviously, turtles cannot inhale oxygen in normal methods while submerged underwater. Instead, the tissues of this area of their bodies are highly vascular and semipermeable to oxygen molecules specifically. All living beings who breathe oxygen transport it throughout their body in their blood. A turtle is capable of taking in the oxygen from the water through these membranes or tissues and they are able to use it the same way as they might have if they inhaled the air above the water. Cloacal respiration is not optimal but, it is enough to give turtles the energy to survive the winter underwater.
Do Different Breeds of Turtles Hibernate Differently?
With there being so many different breeds of turtles, it shouldn’t come as a surprise that some have different hibernation habits that others. For instance, some are more tolerant of colder weather than others. Or, certain breeds are native to certain areas of the world where climates aren’t so harsh in the wintertime. Therefore, they have less of a need to hibernate.
During the winter, snapping turtle hibernation and painted turtle hibernation both take place underwater. These two breeds of turtle, among many other breeds, will spend the cold months submerged under the ice of frozen ponds and lakes where the water is relatively warmer. Sometimes you might be able to spot a snapper or a painted turtle swimming around under the ice.
On the other hand, domesticated land turtles such as box turtles, who are often kept as pets indoors, have a harder time with hibernation. This is because they are so used to the regulated temperatures of their indoor environment. They likely would not survive if they were let outside during the winter for any reason.
Some turtle owners will report their turtles showing behaviors of going into hibernation in the winter while others do not. The ones who do not have turtles who have adapted well to their consistent indoor climate and do not feel the need to hibernate.
Turtles are undeniably unique and adaptable creatures. They’ve survived on this planet since the time of the dinosaurs, so that definitely says something about their survival skills. Wild turtles that live in areas that experience long, cold winters will take the necessary steps to hibernate and simultaneously keep energy levels up.
Turtles maintain adequate energy levels through remarkable means. Being able to take in oxygen through specialized tissues located near their rear end isn’t a trait that many animals can brag about having.
Feel free to check out another article we wrote on turtles: What do baby turtles eat?