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How Do Turtles Survive In The Winter – What Do They Do?

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Turtles don’t have fur or feathers to insulate themselves from the cold. Instead, they rely on their thick shells to retain heat.

They also use special glands located near their eyes to produce a substance called “hibernation hormone”. This hormone helps them enter a state of suspended animation.

Frosted plant

During the winter months, temperatures drop below freezing.

This causes the blood vessels in the turtle’s skin to constrict, reducing heat loss and increasing the amount of blood flowing through the veins. As a result, the turtle’s body temperature drops even further.

In this article, we will be discussing how turtles survive during the winter and what they get up to.

Turtle’s Body Temperature

When a turtle is exposed to low temperatures, its body temperature decreases. However, it does not freeze completely because the water inside the shell acts as an insulator. If the water freezes, then the turtle will die.

Turtle glands are used for two things. Firstly, they help regulate the production of hibernation hormones. Secondly, they secrete a fluid that protects the turtle’s skin.

This fluid is known as “ectoplasm.” Ectoplasm can be seen oozing out of the turtle’s nostrils when they breathe.

As a result, turtles are very adaptable creatures that can adapt to any environment they are put in. We know that turtles are a type of cold-blooded creature, so during winter, turtles go through brumation.

This is where their metabolism slows down, and this then means they have a much lower oxygen and energy consumption.

For turtles to be able to breathe underwater, house cloacal respiration, which means that they breathe through their skin.

Not all turtles go through this process. For example, snapping turtles will still remain quite active during the winter months.

Are Turtles Known To Hibernate During Winter?

Only some species of turtles are known to hibernate.

Some species, such as the Eastern box turtle (Terrapene carolina), and the Northern map turtle (Gopherus polymorpha) are well-known to hibernate during the winter months.

These species have been found to spend around 6 months of the year asleep.

Hibernation is a natural process that occurs in many animals, including mammals, birds, reptiles, and amphibians. It allows these creatures to conserve energy and stay warm during periods of extreme weather.

However, hibernation is normally related for mammals, yet for turtles it is called brumation.

Turtles are pure survivors and can withstand extremely harsh and difficult weather conditions. When the temperature drops during winter, you will notice that turtles move a lot slower.

This is so they can conserve as much energy as possible until winter has passed.

Yet, due to being cold-blooded, they do find it difficult as well to move and eat in cold temperatures.

Alongside that, food sources are scarce during the colder months. As a result, turtles don’t have much choice.

As they are limited by their movement and not much food, turtles are known to dig a burrow quite deep down.

It is typically below the frost line, or they find a secure and safe place under a pile of rotting leaves.

As turtles during winter become much less active and some will stop eating, they will go through a similar process of hibernation, yet for turtles, this process is called brumation.

Turtles And Brumation

Brumation is the process that a lot of reptiles, including turtles, go through during the winter months. This is what makes them slow down to help conserve their energy.

Unlike hibernation, they do not fall asleep, but instead, they slow down their metabolism as they are eating less, and this helps conserve their energy.

However, they are still very alert to any choice in the weather. Therefore, once spring is here, a turtle will immediately become a lot more active.

This process is how turtles can survive the coldest temperatures and harshest winters. Also, their cloacal respiration helps them a lot as well.

This type of breathing isn’t the most optimal, yet it helps to give turtles just enough energy for them to be able to survive, staying underwater during the colder seasons.

Although there are a lot of different breeds of turtles that can be seen around the world, all these different breeds will live in different habitats.

As a result, depending on the turtle and where they live, they may be able to be more active during the winter months compared to some others.

Yet some species, such as the painted and snapping turtle, will go through brumation underwater. It is known that they will stay under the frozen ponds and lakes, as the water is warm.

On rare occasions, you can see a snapping turtle swimming under the ice, as the water is warm enough for them to keep moving.

Do Turtles Go Anywhere During Winter?

As we have mentioned, turtles, like a lot of reptiles, have the advantage of dropping their metabolism and body temperatures. Thus, they then need much less oxygen for them to be able to survive.

It is common to see some turtles stay under the water for multiple days without coming up for a breath when the weather has dropped. This is because turtles can absorb oxygen through their skin.

However, when the weather and water gets too cold for turtles, they will go into hiding in their burrow to keep themselves safe from the cold temperature and any predators.

Through research, we have discovered that the leatherback turtle will travel to the Arctic Ocean for the summer. This type of turtle has amazing abilities to be able to keep themselves warm in frozen water.

This is due to a thick layer of body fat, which helps to keep them insulated.

Also, they have blood vessels that can be found in their fins. This is to replace cold blood with much warmer blood. As these turtles are so big, they lose heat very slowly.

Compared to sea turtles, who don’t like to live where it is icy. Loggerhead and Green turtles will lay their eggs during summer on a beach.

The hatchlings will hatch during the late summer and crawl into the sea before the weather turns colder. As a result, the majority of sea turtles try to avoid the cold weather where possible.

Although, pond turtles won’t go through brumation at all. They are always active but will slow down their metabolism when they notice a shift in the temperature. This is how they survive winter.

How Do Box Turtles Survive Winter?

All species of turtles have found their own ways to deal with winter. When it comes to the box turtle, they are known to shut down and go to sleep during winter. You could say that these turtles will go through hibernation.

Once the temperature begins to fall, box turtles will dig a deep burrow. It is known that North American box turtles will slowly start to become less active and thus eat much less as well.

From September to October, the box turtle will look for somewhere to burrow or hide themselves. Then brumation will typically begin during mid to end of October.

How Do Lake Turtles Survive Winter?

It is known that turtles will remain quite dormant during the colder seasons. Typically, they will lie just below the surface of the lake and are quite inactive. However, they don’t hibernate throughout the whole of winter.

Instead, they lower their metabolism and remain alert to any changes in the temperature. Commonly, light will be their signal that spring is on its way.

Do All Turtles Survive Winter?

3 green turtles with white background

All species of turtles have unique adaptations that allow them to manage the harsh weather conditions of winter.

As turtles are known to be ectotherms, thus their body temperature is affected by the environment they are in.

So if the water is cold, then the body temperature of the turtle will drop. Generally, during winter, the metabolism of most turtles will drop to help them conserve energy.

However, turtles do have lungs like humans and need oxygen to survive.

Fortunately, in winter, their need for oxygen is decreased, and they can survive off cloacal respiration.

Most freshwater turtles will survive the colder months. This is done by submerging them into the water, and they rely on any stored energy they may have.

A couple of species can survive being frozen, as the temperature remains a lot more consistent. Thus, they commonly stay under the water from winter to spring.

As they get less oxygen, certain turtles will use anaerobic respiration. This doesn’t require any oxygen but can lead to a buildup of lactic acid.

However, a turtle’s shell has carbonate buffers, which prevent this build-up from causing any damage to the turtle’s tissues.

How Can You Keep A Turtle Warm In Winter?

The temperature of a turtle is affected by the environment they are in. Also, they are known to go through the brumation process if the temperature drops too much.

Yet, if your turtle is in captivity, you can stop this process from happening, and this will keep your turtle active even as the winter approaches.

Below, we have given you a couple of ways that you could keep your turtle warm during winter.

Increase The Temperature

The ideal way to keep your turtle active is by keeping the temperature of its enclosure at a temperature that is close to a summer day.

Also, you need to make sure that during the night the temperature of their enclosure doesn’t drop too much either.

To avoid your turtle going through brumation, you may want to install some extra heating to keep their enclosure warm. There are quite a few ways in which to keep the temperature up in your enclosure.

  • Keep the heating on low during the night.
  • Install UVB lighting to add extra warmth.
  • Try not to make the air too dry, so add some humidity with a lot of plants.

Bright Lights

Giving your turtle plenty of bright lights, it will help keep your turtle warm during the colder seasons. To do this, you could place the turtle enclosure next to a window, which naturally receives a lot of sunlight.

The bright light will make your turtle think that it is summer. Also, some artificial lights can add not only light when there isn’t much natural sunlight. Yet, they also provide their own warmth as well.

Give Your Turtle A Bath

Giving your turtle a bath in warm water for 15 to 20 minutes, it can help them stay active. This is because the warm water helps keep their body warm.

Also, you can provide your turtle with lots of things to do. The more active your turtle is, the warmer they will feel as well.

Frequent Feeding

During the winter, wild turtles struggle to find enough food. So it is important that you supply your turtle with a varied diet often.

Once your turtle wakes up, make them go under a lamp to keep their body temperature high, to help with digestion.

You should feed them frequently so that they don’t need to conserve any energy. Also providing them with plenty of water to help them stay hydrated as well.


Turtles are strong animals that are great adaptors. They typically will go through brumation during winter, which helps them to conserve their energy and survive the harsh weather.

By providing your turtle with a varied diet, keeping their temperature up, and making sure that they have access to plenty of water, you can help ensure that your turtle survives in the coldest months.

Frequently Asked Questions

How Long Does A Turtle Brumate?

This does depend on the location of the turtle. Turtles in the north will brumate for much longer than turtles in the south. Also, as spring doesn’t always occur at the same time, this can affect the length too.

Can Turtles Survive In Snow?

Once the snow arrives, the majority of turtles are far below the water. They will stay there until the temperature changes, but it is rare to see a turtle in the snow, as it is too cold for them.

How Do Turtles Know When To Wake Up?

As turtles don’t actually go to sleep, so they don’t need to wake up. They are very aware of changes in the temperature, which affects when they will become active again.

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About the author


Kerry White is an avid dog lover and writer, knowing all there is to know about our furry friends. Kerry has been writing for PetDT for three years now, wanting to use her knowledge for good and share everything she can with new dog owners.Kerry has two dogs herself - a German shepherd called Banjo and a chocolate labrador called Buttons. Kerry knows more than anyone how adjusting to new life with a puppy can turn your life upside down, and she wants to ease some of the burdens through her articles.