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Not all turtles and tortoises hibernate. Among the species that do, the technical term for what happens when a reptile (rather than a mammal) does this is called “brumation.”
If you are a herpetologist (reptile expert), you will know to use the term “brumation” instead of “hibernation” when referring to a reptile’s traditional period of winter dormancy.
If you are the rest of us, you might just say “they hibernate.” This is okay too.
Either way, the brumating reptile will slow down his metabolism (breathing, heart rate, et al) to the point where he can’t even move to defend himself from predators. This is why it is so critical to make sure pet brumating reptiles are in a safe, secure location!!
Bruce, who is a 3 toed box turtle, has a native wild territory throughout the south central/eastern parts of the United States (the parts that extend from Texas through Missouri, where the 3 toed box turtle is the official state reptile – go Bruce!, Louisiana, Alabama, Georgia, South Carolina, Kansas, Mississippi and Florida).
So in this area of the country, temperatures can really vary. Some states in Bruce’s range will get more of a “true” winter season, while others may stay relatively warm throughout the year.
But most box turtles will demonstrate the desire to brumate regardless of whether they live in Texas or South Carolina, and this is partly due to DNA and circadian rhythms (the shorter days/longer nights of the cold season) and partly due to simple smart survival skills.
Victuals become more scarce in the winter, and so do chances to make baby turtles. So many herpetologists think box turtles are programmed to enter a state of protective brumation to conserve scarce resources until warmer temperatures return.
Also, many male box turtles that wake up from brumation in the spring are particularly eager to find a lady box turtle to make some eggs with. In fact, this was the season when Bruce was first rescued to me – the theory was that he had just woken up from hibernation and was scurrying around here and there looking for a lady box turtle to mate with!
But he kept finding curious dogs and cats and fast cars and houses and lots of concrete….which is how he ended up living with me instead of becoming a box turtle dad.
Exactly when and how long box turtles will brumate depends a lot on the local climate and weather patterns. In colder areas, a box turtle might start preparing for brumation as early as mid-September, whereas in warmer areas (like Houston, TX) late October to early November is a more likely target start date.
Basically, any time day and evening temperatures begin to consistently dip below 55 to 60 degrees Fahrenheit is the time when a box turtle will begin to prepare to brumate. Wild box turtles will often prepare by ceasing to eat and emptying their bowels and bladder, then digging themselves into a nice secure spot in the earth.
In captivity, box turtles depend on their owners to help them prepare, first by lessening and then withholding food for a few weeks prior (your box turtle will likely show progressively less interest in food anyway, even if you keep offering it).
Next, what captive brumating box turtles need most is a a suitable hibernaculum (secure hibernation spot) and plenty of soft, warm bedding (like hay and leaf litter) to burrow into.
You should also schedule a pre-brumation veterinary check-up to make sure your box turtle is healthy enough to survive the brumation period. Even a minor respiratory infection, shell lesion or skin injury can be fatal during brumation, so the critical importance of the pre-brumation vet checkup cannot be overstated!
Then, once your box turtle is safely settled in for the long haul, you will need to keep watch. Here, “keeping watch” typically means making sure clean water is always available just in case your box turtle wakes up and wants to drink, checking to make sure there is never a risk of predation or drowning, and sometimes – if necessary – waking your turtle up and examining him to make sure he is still alive and healthy.
If you are brumating a reptile for the very first time, like I had to do last year when Bruce got ready for winter dormancy, it is a VERY good idea to talk a lot with your exotic animal veterinarian and make sure to run your setup by your vet before you put your turtle in to brumate.
I stayed in close contact with our vet all during Bruce’s first brumation period, and it sure helped me ease the stress I was feeling! I also did dig him up at one point after a particularly fierce rainstorm just to check and make sure he was still okay. He was….and he didn’t seem any the worse for being woken, but I sure felt a lot better!
If seasonal temperatures tend to fluctuate from week to week and year to year, it is not at all uncommon to see a brumating reptile temporarily wake up and emerge for a day or few…only to head right back down into the hibernaculum as soon as it turns cold again.
Once the day and evening temperature begins to consistently rise and stay above 60 to 65 degrees Fahrenheit, you can expect to see your reptile emerge shortly thereafter. If you don’t see this happen, it is perfectly fine to go in and dig your pet up to check on them!