Have you ever wondered where turtles go in the winter? Maybe you’ve observed the wood turtles hanging out in wooded areas near your home. Their disappearance during colder weather may have caused you to wonder: does the wood turtle hibernate? If so, why? When? And how does it hibernate? Keep reading as we explore the answers to all of these questions!
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Do Wood Turtles Hibernate?
Many animals go into a period of dormancy during the winter, and wood turtles are no different. However, this period of dormancy isn’t called hibernation.
Instead, wood turtles go into a state known as brumation. Turtles in this state are said to be brumating.
Hibernation vs. Brumation
But what’s the difference between hibernation and brumation? For all intents and purposes, they are pretty similar to each other.
Hibernation is what it’s called when warm-blooded animals, such as bears and chipmunks, go to sleep for periods of several days up to several months during the winter.
Brumation is when cold-blooded animals, such as turtles and lizards, go dormant during periods of cold weather.
Hibernating animals tend to stay asleep throughout an entire season, waking when the weather begins to change.
Brumating animals may become active on warmer winter days only to go back into dormancy when it gets cold again.
So, as you can see, there are slight differences between hibernation and brumation. For practical purposes, however, brumation is typically just considered the cold-blooded animal’s hibernation.
Why Do Wood Turtles Hibernate?
Wood turtles hibernate, or brumate, because their bodies cannot tolerate the extremely cold temperatures of their native habitat during the winter.
As cold-blooded creatures, their body temperature is largely affected by the ambient temperature in their environment. If it is too cold, they will freeze to death.
When they brumate, their normal body functions slow down and they go into a sleep-like state. These physical functions allow them to survive colder temperatures than they could if they were fully active.
What’s more, while brumating, they tend to hang out in the water, where temperatures remain relatively steady throughout the winter. Even if air temperatures are well below freezing, the water in streams and ponds does not freeze below the top layer.
Since the water temperature remains consistent, and the turtle is dormant due to its slowed metabolism, the turtle can survive long periods of cold weather this way.
When Do Wood Turtles Hibernate?
Wood turtles brumate throughout the cold winter months. The exact time frame varies depending on where the turtle lives; those found in northern environments experience longer winters, so they brumate for longer periods of time than those found further south.
As mentioned above, brumating animals may become temporarily active on warmer days during the winter. This is true of wood turtles as well.
During unseasonal periods of warmer weather, or even isolated warmer days, wood turtles will emerge from the water as the sun warms their bodies. They will sun themselves on rocks, logs, riverbanks, or other sunny areas and may search for food.
When the sun sets or the weather becomes cold again, they will return to the water and go back into a dormant state.
The brumation period typically lasts from October, November, or December through late March or April, depending on location and local weather conditions.
How Do Wood Turtles Hibernate?
Wood turtles brumate underwater in most cases; they may seek shelter in rivers, creeks, streams, and sometimes in ponds or lakes. They return to the same areas to brumate year after year.
Sometimes they bed down on the bottom of the stream or riverbed, snuggling in with the leaves, silt, and other debris found there. Other times, they make their way into beaver dams, muskrat burrows, or other hollowed-out areas on the stream bed.
As the temperature decreases, their heart rate and breathing slows, thereby slowing down other bodily functions as well.
In this state, they can remain submerged under the water for days or weeks at a time without breathing or eating.
Though they don’t breathe when submerged, they do take in oxygen and release carbon dioxide through a process called cloacal respiration. This is sometimes called “butt-breathing” since the exchange takes place through the turtle’s cloaca.
On warm or sunny days, the sunlight may warm the wood turtle enough that their body functions will resume normal paces. On these days, the turtles may swim around or even emerge from the water to warm themselves in a sunny spot.
As winter turns to spring, they emerge from the water for good–at least until the weather begins turning cold again next fall.
Check out this video to learn more about how wood turtles brumate:
Wood turtles don’t technically hibernate; instead, they go dormant in a process known as brumation, which is similar to hibernation but only applies to cold-blooded animals.
Wood turtles brumate by slowing their bodily functions and submerging themselves underwater, where their slowed metabolism and the steady water temperatures allow them to stay alive even as air temperatures grow colder.
On warm days, they become more active, retreating to the water when the cold weather returns. Once spring arrives and the weather becomes consistently warm, wood turtles will emerge from the water and return to their terrestrial summertime homes.