Close up of box turtle walking toward grass.

Eastern Box Turtle seen during warmer months.

Nature Mysteries -Do turtles hibernate?

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Cold-blooded Hibernation

During the summer months it’s common to see turtles basking in the ponds, or to spot a box turtle crossing your hiking path.  But where do they go in the winter?  You may think they hibernate, but they actually experience a slightly different period of dormancy called brumation. 


Turtles in summer sunning themselves on a log.

Aquatic turtles taking advantage of a warm day.

Turtles and other reptiles are ectothermic (or “cold-blooded”) which means they rely on their environment to regulate their body temperature.  Colder temperatures cause the metabolism of ectothermic animals to slow down which impacts their ability to move.  To protect themselves, they go into brumation.  As fall sets in, the colder temperatures cause ectothermic animals to reduce their body temperature, heart rate and respiration- similar to animals who hibernate.  However, unlike animals who experience a true hibernation, animals who brumate will emerge and move around on warmer days to find water and to sometimes bask in the sun.


A bed of mulch with a turtle shell slightly uncovered.

One of Wilkerson Nature Preserve’s resident box turtles buried for the winter.

So, where do they go?  Box turtles will dig and hide fully underground.  Aquatic turtles typically bury in the bottom of a pond.  Slider turtles can even survive long periods of time without oxygen by using anaerobic cell respiration.  Other reptiles such as snakes or lizards may also shelter underground or take shelter in rock cervices.  Once they are in place, they remain almost completely motionless for long periods of time while their metabolic rate reduces to a minimum.   By doing this, they are able to conserve energy and survive the harsh winter temperatures.



Bryan England


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