Where Do Turtles Go in Winter?

Many people at some point during their childhood have had a turtle as a pet. Oftentimes they are found in a nearby creek or pond or in the backyard, and sometimes they are purchased at a pet store. Typically turtles that are kept as a pet will be either a Painted Turtle or a Red-Eared Slider. You will often see these turtles basking on a log on a warm summer day, sometimes piled on top of each other, only to quickly plunge into the water as soon as you approach. Box Turtles will be common pets too for those who prefer a land turtle.

As cold-blooded creatures, turtles are ectothermic, meaning they get their body heat from their surroundings, whether it be the air, the water or the ground. They need to be warm to move around and to eat and breathe, which in turn means they need to stay warm to live. Turtles can be found on every continent, except Antarctica, and we know that it definitely does not stay warm all over the world, so what do turtles do that live in places that change seasons and get cold during the winter?

Turtle basking on log
Turtle basking on log | Source

What do turtles do when it gets cold?

Just like some mammals that hibernate during the winter, turtles enter into a type of hibernation for reptiles called brumation. This is a state of inactivity where the turtle does not eat, its heart and lung functions slow, and they either sleep or move very little to conserve energy until the weather warms. So where do turtles go when they brumate? The type of turtle and the environment it lives in determines how or where they will brumate.

Land turtles like box turtles and tortoises will burrow underground below where the soil will freeze or under leaves or inside of fallen logs. Water turtles like Red-Eared Sliders will go deep under the water in a lake or pond. There is a scientific property of water that makes it possible for turtles to survive under a frozen lake for weeks or even months. That's a real Ninja Turtle! Water is most dense, or its heaviest, at 39 degrees, so as it cools it sinks. Surface waters can eventually freeze, but the water at the bottom of the lake or pond will remain at 39 degrees creating a microclimate where the turtle can survive as long as the temperatures are not extreme..

Hibernation is dangerous for a turtle

This is not to say that hibernation is a piece of cake. It is a very dangerous time for a turtle. Severe conditions can result in death due to lack of oxygen or the habitat freezing all the way through. It’s a delicate balance of being warm enough so they do not freeze, but being cool enough so that they don’t burn up too much energy and then need food. An example of the change in metabolism that a turtle encounters during brumation can be seen in their heart function. A turtle whose heart normally beats 40 times a minute on a warm summer day may drop to one beat every 10 minutes in the winter. They become very vulnerable, not only to weather conditions but also to predators. Another problem is that once a turtle finds a good spot to hibernate it will tend to go back to that same spot year after year. If this environment is disturbed his life can be threatened if he can’t find another acceptable location.

Eastern Box Turtle

Box Turtle
Box Turtle | Source

Why brumate?

The ability to hibernate seems to be instinctual, as noted by Jonathan Rheins in his article "Reptilian Brumation". Even when a turtle is not exposed to extreme weather conditions it can still exhibit the behaviors associated with hibernating. Turtles kept in captivity may begin to eat less, sleep more, and move less because they are “programmed” to hibernate. So if you have a pet turtle you may need to simulate an environment conducive to hibernating so it can do what it does naturally.

There are around 300 species of turtles and most of these will enter into some type of hibernation. In addition to brumating in cold weather, turtles may also aestivate, or try to keep cool, in cases of extreme heat. The level of humidity will also determine whether a turtle hibernates or not. In general, the further from the equator they live the more likely it is that they will hibernate.

“Keep in mind that because your animals are in captivity, does not mean that they do not receive subtle cues from the outside world. With the exceptions of snakes being kept and bred in rack units...reptiles will begin showing signs of a winter slow-down and/or brumation regardless of what environmental conditions you provide.

— Jonathan Rheins from his article “Reptilian Brumation”

Box Turtle on a stroll

Hibernation house for your pet turtle

Zoo Med Wood Tortoise House
Zoo Med Wood Tortoise House

Your pet turtle may need to hibernate too, so be sure to provide the right environment.


What do turtles eat?

When turtles are not hibernating and do need some food, what do they eat? This too depends on their habitat. Turtles that live in and around water will eat plants that grow in the water, insects, worms and even snails. They may also eat dead fish or frogs. Many turtles are carnivorous when young but add plants to their diet as they get older. If you have a pet turtle like a Painted Turtle or a Red-Eared Slider be sure to feed him protein like cooked meat, insects like crickets, leafy vegetables, and even fruit and flowers. It’s a good idea to have a separate feeding tank because turtles can be quite messy eaters. Also a calcium vitamin supplement will help keep their shell strong. Just do not give them dairy as their systems can not tolerate dairy products.

Turtles can live a very long time, even in captivity, so consider this and do a lot of research before bringing one of these cute little guys home. Do not dump pet turtles into your neighborhood pond. They can quickly take over and become an invasive nuisance!

Turtles eating lettuce in the water

Non-plant life
Has a vertebra
Has Scales, like snakes, lizards, crocodiles, turtles
Includes all turtles and tortoises

Scientific Classification of Turtles

Within the animal kingdom turtles are in the scientific class of Reptilia (Reptile), and of the order Testudine, which includes all turtles and tortoises. Many people think that turtles fall under a classification of amphibian; however this is not correct. Although reptiles and amphibians have similar characteristics, one is not a sub-set of the other.

Turtles are further divided into categories depending on where they spend most of their time. Some are considered aquatic as they spend most of their time in lakes, ponds, creeks and rivers. There are semi-aquatic turtles that dwell in swamps and marshes, and there are others that are considered semi-terrestrial because they spend time mostly on land but go in the water sometimes too.

Amphibian or Reptile?

A final note on whether a turtle is a reptile or an amphibian. Many people incorrectly interchange the two terms. And one is not really a subset of the other. Some people think that where an animal lives determines whether it is a reptile or an amphibian. This is not totally correct either. Both are cold-blooded and both have a spine or backbone. However, amphibians begin life in the water and breathe through gills then migrate to land and breathe through lungs. Reptiles are born in eggs on land with lungs and never have gills.

You can see in the diagram below in the purple area that amphibians and reptiles branch out on two separate paths from tetrapods, which are animals with four feet (tetra=four; pod=feet). A reptile is not a type of amphibian nor is an amphibian a type of a reptile. Turtles can be further divided between freshwater, saltwater and land turtles.

Domain Classification Diagram


A hungry turtle eats lettuce.

Basic Differences Between Amphibians and Reptiles

Babies usually look different from adult stage
Babies look like miniature versions of adults
Skin Texture
Smooth, moist, sticky
Dry, scaly. Actual skin is found under scales.
Toxic skin secretions
Nails, teeth, scales
Frog, Toad, Salamander
Snake, Lizard, Crocodile, Turtle
Chart information from http://www.diffen.com/difference/Amphibian_vs_Reptile

Turtles as pets

Don't cast off turtles as slow and boring. They are quite complex creatures with unique needs. They can make good pets if you do some research, provide the right environment and give them a proper diet of necessary foods. Some are plain, others are more colorful. Some are only as big as a half-dollar while others can grow big enough to sit on! Some spend most of their time in the water and others like tortoises stay almost exclusively on dry land. Don't forget that whatever type of turtle you choose, they will probably want to hibernate at some point during the year even if you keep them warm.

For more information on choosing a turtle for a pet, visit this site: http://pets.petsmart.com/guides/turtles/choosing-the-right-turtle.shtml

Painted Turtle

Close-up of beautiful Painted Turtle.
Close-up of beautiful Painted Turtle. | Source

What's your thoughts on turtles?

Have you ever had a turtle for a pet?

  • Yes, and I named him!
  • No, they're boring.
  • I have never thought about it.
  • I'm on my way to the pet store now to get one!
See results without voting

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Kappygirl profile image

Kappygirl 13 months ago Author

Thank you @Dirt Farmer! I wonder if the turtles would eat the tomatoes if they could reach them? I bet the baby was cute :)

The Dirt Farmer profile image

The Dirt Farmer 13 months ago from United States

This is really a fascinating hub. I hadn't thought about turtles burrowing so far down into the soil, below the frost line, but it certainly makes sense. We have box turtles in our yard. Last year I saw a mother (red eyes) and baby next to our raised beds, staring up at the tomatoes (with longing, I imagined.) They needed a boost!

Kappygirl profile image

Kappygirl 14 months ago Author

Thank you @Akriti Mattu. So glad you enjoyed it.

Akriti Mattu profile image

Akriti Mattu 14 months ago from Shimla, India

What a lovely post :)

Kappygirl profile image

Kappygirl 15 months ago Author

It could be that it's actually gotten too hot for them @peachpurple. Here in the southeast it has been blisteringly hot this summer! Thanks for the comment.

peachpurple profile image

peachpurple 15 months ago from Home Sweet Home

Turtles hibernate now. My neighbors have two big old turtles, like as if looking for a place to hide

Kappygirl profile image

Kappygirl 15 months ago Author

@Dolores Monet - that was so nice of you to host your little turtle visitors :) It truly is a wonder how they are created to adapt to the weather. Thanks so much for stopping by!

Dolores Monet profile image

Dolores Monet 15 months ago from East Coast, United States

I enjoyed reading this piece on turtles, our favorite reptiles. I still can't fathom how they can live through the winter like that. When I was a kid, we lived next to a wooded area and used to see box turtles all the time. If one came into the yard, I'd fix up a little area for it, feed it veggies, and give it a shallow pan of water. I'd keep it around for a couple of days, then take it out into the woods. Free the turtles!

Kappygirl profile image

Kappygirl 20 months ago Author

Yes @aesta1, now you know why you don't see the turtles in the winter :) If I'm able to stop I always try to move turtles out of the road; however, the most recent time it was a snapping turtle so I left him alone!

aesta1 profile image

aesta1 20 months ago from Ontario, Canada

I only see turtles in the summer. We have one in our bay so sometimes, we get to see it. The Lake is frozen in the winter so they must be in there. What I don't like are the turtles on the road in the summer. Some don't make it to the other side.

peachpurple profile image

peachpurple 20 months ago from Home Sweet Home

Wow turtles are even stronger than bears, going deep sleep

Kappygirl profile image

Kappygirl 21 months ago Author

Thanks @Mel Carriere for the positive comments. Probably most people haven't considered what happens to turtles in the winter. I know I try to hide when it's cold!

Mel Carriere profile image

Mel Carriere 21 months ago from San Diego California

I don't think turtles are boring at all, I've just never had one for a pet. This was an extremely interesting hub, because I had never even considered what turtles do during the cold months. Excellent job, very well written.

Kappygirl profile image

Kappygirl 21 months ago Author

Great! Glad you enjoyed it :)

Kristen Howe profile image

Kristen Howe 21 months ago from Northeast Ohio

Great information on turtles. I've learned so much about turtles in this hub--some I didn't know about.

Kappygirl profile image

Kappygirl 21 months ago Author

Thanks so much @Craftypicks. Your comments mean a lot since you are clearly an expert on turtles! How fabulous that you rescued so-o-o many turtles! Yes, I had read that they breathe through their butts, but I didn't know they had to empty out their systems before going into hibernation. There's a lot to know about these guys :)

Craftypicks profile image

Craftypicks 21 months ago from Las Vegas

I was the Director of Turtle Homes, a rescue for turtles and tortoises for ten years. We would rescue them out of the food markets in both the United States and Asian countries. I have rescued probably close to 20,000 turtles and tortoises so yes I have named a few, more than a few. Did you know that turtles breathe out of their butts. There is a membrane that takes in oxygen. It's not enough to keep them alive like a fish, but it will extend their ability to be under water way longer than any animal that breathes air. People think they go into a dead sleep in the winter. They really don't. They become animated, like in slow motion, but they move around a lot. I used to watch them in the rescue pond all the time and yes I totally agree it's a dangerous time for them. We always lost a few over the Winter. Mostly it was people who just took it upon themselves to dump the turtles in there without telling the staff. Turtles need to be cleaned out. If stool is left in their system it will rot. Turtles naturally clean themselves out before going into hibernation, but when you just plunge a turtle into the cold water they will die. I really liked your article. I read a lot of articles on Turtles and Tortoises that give really bad advice, but you did all the right research. Excellent job.

Kappygirl profile image

Kappygirl 21 months ago Author

Thanks @RonElFran! It's always fun learning new things!

RonElFran profile image

RonElFran 21 months ago from Mechanicsburg, PA

I must admit to never having given a thought to what turtles do in winter. But I found this very interesting. Brumation is now my new word of the day. Good job.

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