Raising Baby Turtles
Hibernation of Pet Turtles
This is a difficult subject to cover. Part of the reason is because we are still learning about hibernation. Another reason is because you may try our techniques unsuccessfully and loose turtles. We don't want that to happen. We do want to address this subject because we get email asking about hibernation of pet turtles.
Let us begin with defining hibernation as the term will be used herein because there is some discussion in the scientific community as to whether reptiles and amphibians "hibernate" like mammals (cold blooded animals vs. warm blooded animals). We will use the term hibernation simply as the inactive state used by a turtle to get through cold periods in winter in a cold condition. This is different from aestivation which is what turtles do to get through periods of inactivity in warm months when it's hot and dry. A pet turtle who would normally hibernate and is kept warm by bringing it indoors many be inactive and not eat; this state is called brumation. It sounds more complicated than it is. Bare with us.
First we must answer the question of why we allow our turtles to hibernate. As pet owners who truly care for our turtles we only have one reason to allow our turtles to hibernate - we do not have adequate space and setups to bring all our turtles inside for the winter. THIS IS THE ONLY REASON !
Yes there are theories about the reproductive cycles of turtles that say they need a period of hibernation to reproduce. Straight talk. If our turtles do not survive the winter, they will not reproduce. And most turtles can reproduce more than once in a season and some do not reproduce every season. As pet owners who love baby turtles, this is not our reason to subject our turtles to the risks associated with hibernation.
So who hibernates and who does not. If you have read our other tours, you know that we do not allow baby turtles to hibernate. Likewise we do not allow smaller juvenile land turtles such as box turtles and wood turtles to hibernate. Their growth rates are slow enough that they may come inside for several winters. Juvenile water turtles grow more rapidly and outgrow our aquariums sooner. They spend at least one winter indoors. Sick or injured turtles will also come inside if they are not inside already.
There are several different means by which turtles breath during hibernation. It varies by the environment in which they live and spend the winter such as box turtles on land verses painted turtles in water. If you want to learn more about this subject, you will have to do some reading elsewhere. It is more than we can present based on our own first hand observations.
Hibernation of Land Turtles
We allow our box turtles to hibernate outside in a natural condition in a pile of leaves. Because we want to provide an enhanced condition for them without being artificial, we have constructed a three sided pit inside a large turtle pen in which we place leaves. The wood sides reduce the intrusion of tree roots and maintain the depth (height of the sides). It takes advantage of a moderate slope so the bottom of the pit is level with the down hill side of the pit. This allows easy access for the turtles and insures that rain water will not puddle in the pit. We sometimes get heavy rain on top of snow when the ground is frozen. A pit below grade would hold water and possibly drown the turtles.
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We must keep in mind that pet turtles housed outside in a pen live in an altered world. They live outdoors confined in a limited space and cared for by us. We force them to rely on us for their food, water, and environment. It should be no surprise when we get into routines together. This is the case with our hibernation pit. It is a year round part of their environment that is changed seasonally and they use it according to their seasonal needs.
Our picture tour begins in August. The leaves and pine needles that decompose over the summer are used as compost in the gardens. Some remains in the pit to provide a soft landing for turtles that drop into the pit. Winter preparation begins in August by removing most of the remaining decomposed leaves. Some compost is turned under the soil to improve the soil and loosen it for digging and drainage. We are fortunate to have a poplar tree that begins dropping leaves in August. These leaves are placed in the clean pit and will be the only leaves available until October. The turtles immediately begin using the new leaves to hide in. These early leaves will provide cover for many cold nights before more leaves drop in October.
By the time autumn leaves are abundant, many turtles are using the new leaf pile including some water turtles. In October leaves and white pine needles are added to the pile. We try to use leaves like oak leaves that do not mat down and become a soggy wet layer like maple leaves. White pine needles are good for mixing with the leaves to keep them form mating. We want an insulating pile of leaves that allows air and moisture to reach the turtles.
NEW>> We have observed that the turtles hibernate at the bottom of the leaf pile not up in the leaves. They dig into the soil so that the soil covers their shell openings and exposed limbs. The tops of their shells are generally not buried by soil. They do the same thing if they bury in the leaves for short periods of time in the spring or summer. In spring they move slowly to the top of the leaves. They often emerge for short periods on sunny days before leaving the leaf pile for the season. <<<
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There is no great trick to building a leaf pile. Most leaves will do. We do not use any green leaves, green plants, grass clippings, or weeds. Green plant material will generate heat and mold. We do not wish to generate heat but rather reduce the penetration of cold and maintain an stable cold temperature. It's similar to the reasons we mulch a garden. We also remove pine cones, sticks, and branches. The top of the pile is open to the weather.
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We allow are adult box turtles and older juvenile box turtles to hibernate in the leaf pile. These include eastern, three-toed, and Gulf Coast box turtles. Ornate box turtles do well too. Other turtles will use it if allowed to. When mixing autumn leaves with the early leaves, we find snapping turtles, wood turtles, and painted turtles already dug in. Most turtles can hibernate in the leaf pile. We will cover the water turtles below.
The leaf pile does settle and some blow away. By the end of November we are done adding leaves and the turtles have settled. They may come out on warm days. Turtles found walking around are tucked in before nightfall if the night time temperature is expected to be near freezing. Some turtles leave the leaf pile and dig in elsewhere.
In winter snow cover helps reduce the penetration of cold and maintains a steady temperature. One winter an indoor/outdoor thermometer was used to monitor the temperature at the bottom of the leaves. The temperature held steady around 32 degrees F.
In the spring we are always happy to see our turtles emerge. This is usually about Good Friday. Yes Good Friday varies on the calendar, but this has become our tradition. As the days warm, the leaf pile stays cold. We begin removing some leaves as turtles emerge. They will not leave the leaves until the day lilies nearby are high enough to hide in. The growth of the day lilies is an indicator of the amount of warmth we have had rather than the amount of cover available to hide in.
Once the turtles leave the leaf pile in the spring, they do not use it much over the summer. As it begins to decompose, they do not bury themselves in it unless the weather is hot and dry. It is the cool moist place to dig in if needed.
We expect the survival rate of our box turtles hibernating outside to be about the same as the survival rate of our box turtles outside in the summer. Some emerge needing some extra care such as clearing their eyes. Again this is about the same as we see in the summer.
Hibernating Water Turtles
Water turtles can hibernate in a garden pond just as pond fish do. The pond must be deep enough so as not to freeze solid. An air hole must be maintained in the ice at all times to allow the exchange of dissolved gases in the water. We do not have such a pond and refer you to other sources for winterizing garden ponds if you wish to use this method.
For many years we allowed our water turtles, wood turtles, and spotted turtles to hibernate in leaf piles with mixed results. Some years they did well and some years we lost turtles. The reasons are not entirely clear. We do know that some turtles were chewed on by rodents and some did not stay settled in the leaves. Wood turtles and spotted turtles may crowd into water bowls rather than go into the leaves forcing us to remove all water.
We then tried placing some turtles in tubs of water equipped with aquarium air bubblers in our unheated basement. Others were placed in tubs of leaves in the basement. This works, but it is not without risks. Who hibernates in the leaves and who hibernates in the water? Where do we put wood turtles and spotted turtles who need very high moisture but may choose to bury in the leaves. Some water turtles also prefer burying in the leaves.
If turtles are in tubs of moist leaves, they will need access to water so they do not dehydrate. Turtles in water may wish to leave the water or sit out similar to basking. Turtles spending the winter in a basement must be monitored periodically to insure that they are in good health.
We decided to give our turtles a choice of environments in our basement so we built a large box lined with a rubber pond liner. It measures 4' by 8' by 2' high. It is divided into two compartments separated by an incline covered with wire hardware cloth for climbing. One side is filled with water about 9" deep and the other side is filled with leaves. The turtles may sit on the divider and move freely between the water and the leaves. The water compartment has dividers made with plastic lumber to create additional corners to hide in. Air from a bubble stone agitates the water.
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We call this elaborate box "the ark". It sets below a basement window which provides some daylight and fresh air. The temperature in the basement will stabilize at 50 degrees F. A cooler temperature can be achieved by opening the window more. At this temperature, some turtles will move about and respond when a light is turned on.
We are not suggesting that an elaborate enclosure like the "ark" is necessary. We feel a need to go the extra mile to insure the healthy survival of our turtles so that we can share our techniques with you. Giving the turtles a choice of water or leaves will provide some interesting information to share with you later on.
Some juvenile turtles we bring inside for the winter become less active and do not eat or eat very little. They are alert to our presence, but do not come running for food or attention. This is basically a state of brumation and it may last for several months over winter. There is nothing we can do about it. It is less common with water turtles.
We treat turtles in a state of brumation much the same way we would treat them if they were active. We make sure they have clean water every day and provide food several times a week. Land turtles get a soak in a tub of water once a week so we know they are hydrated and healthy. We still talk to them and pet them. The land turtles are in vivariums with plants so their environment is moist at all times. We give them the same light and maintain them at the same temperature which is just normal room temperature.
Live food like earthworms or crickets in spring is usually the first thing they eat when they resume eating. If such a treat is offered and not eaten, there is always a water turtle willing to eat it.
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Like hibernation, brumation has its risks. We could mistake illness for brumation. We watch their eyes which should be clear at all times. They should also be reasonably active after a soak in a tub of water.
Some Closing Thoughts
We could place our box turtles in the basement in something like the "ark", but that would deny them the pleasure of many warm sunny days. The water turtles are denied those same warm sunny days they would sit by the pond, but their pond is drained for the winter. Therefore, the water turtles must come inside. Some juvenile box turtles could hibernate outside rather than brumate inside, but we would miss them.
Lastly we have Emily our large Florida red-bellied turtle. She was a lost turtle we adopted. She is delightful. She is our first turtle who would normally be active all winter. These turtles are only found in Florida and limited areas in Georgia. She came inside with our other water turtles and was placed in the "ark" for about a month of hibernation. We do not trust leaving her hibernate too long so we brought her out of hibernation and set up an aquarium for her. She is a learning experience for us.
On Good Friday several box turtles emerged from hibernation, but they were not the first to do so. The turtles in the ark were also stirring in the basement. So the following day the pond was filled and all the water turtles and the wood turtle were moved from the basement to the pond. The ark in the basement was a complete success.
The wood turtle and a western painted turtle spent about half the winter in the leaves in the ark and then moved to the water. Leaves tracked into the water indicate that a few turtles explored the leaves early and then remained in the water. The water temperature averaged about 45 degrees.
The first box turtle was seen on February 29th and we believe it did not hibernate in the leaf pile. This turtle is named Robin because it is always the first one out. We also begin removing some of the leaves as they emerge to allow the leaf pile to warm. The box turtles emerge over a long period of time because the bottom of the leaf pile remains cold.
Emily the large Florida red-belly was a delight to have inside and was not a problem as first expected. She is very domesticated and wanted attention when we entered the room. We broke our rule of not feeding turtles in their aquariums. That was a mistake and the tank had to be cleaned after several weeks. Then we got into a workable routine. Every other day she was given some lettuce in the aquarium. The other days she was feed pellets in a utility sink where she also did her business. Then she was placed on the floor for several hours of roaming the house. She usually ended up under the same bed. She had a very good appetite when her aquarium water was at least 75 degrees. When she did not get the attention she wanted, she could be heard thumping about in the aquarium.
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We hope this our eleventh behind-the-scenes tour helps you address the question of hibernation of pet turtles.
Last revised 12/17/05
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