Do Box Turtles Hibernate?

 

Do box turtles hibernate? This guy's not telling.

Do box turtles hibernate? This guy’s not telling
Photo by Bob Larrick @ Flickr; licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0

 

Well, the answer to the question “Do box turtles hibernate?” seems to depend on who you ask.

Box turtles do enter a dormant state for the winter. But is it true hibernation? Or do we need a different term to describe what they do, namely brumation?

And what about the similar dormant state they go into when the weather is too hot and dry? It has yet another name (estivation).

What is Hibernation?

Hibernation is a way that some animals survive the winter. Their metabolism slows way down. Their breathing rate, heart rate and body temperature are well below normal. And they don’t move around. This way they don’t use up too much energy. They basically sleep through the winter, using just enough energy to stay alive until spring.

Some small animals will wake up periodically during the winter, but usually only for a few hours (less than one day). Many rodents and other small animals can’t store enough body fat for the winter. So they store food instead, eating it when they wake. Then they go right back to sleep.

How is Brumation Different From Hibernation?

It’s not really. When reptiles enter a dormant state, their metabolism and body temperatures also drop well below normal. And they sleep until spring. If there are a string of warm days, they may wake up briefly. They don’t usually eat when they wake, but they may drink water.

There are a couple of differences in the way reptile bodies and mammal’s bodies handle hibernation. These differences exist because reptile physiology is different from mammals.

  • Mammals eat a lot to fatten up for hibernation. Turtles stop eating and hibernate with an empty gut.
  • Mammals regulate their body temperatures, even during hibernation; they just keep their temperatures very low. Turtles can’t regulate their own body temperatures, so a turtle’s hibernating temperature is basically the same as the temperature in its burrow.

These differences are what prompted some reptile enthusiasts to prefer using a term other than hibernation for reptiles’ winter dormancy. But most people just refer to it all as hibernation.

We also generally just use the word hibernation, since it’s the more familiar term to most people. When discussing the topic, we’ll mention that it can be called either hibernation or brumation. But then we’ll continue using hibernation.

So Then What is Estivation?

Estivation (also spelled aestivation) is also a period of dormancy. Just like hibernation/brumation, the animal finds someplace to hide and its metabolism, breathing, etc. slows way down. But this term refers to going dormant when the weather is too hot and/or dry rather than cold.

The animal stays dormant until the weather cools or rains come.

Most mammals do not estivate, but many reptiles and amphibians will. Some invertebrates, like snails and lady beetles also estivate.

So really, they’re all basically the same thing to the animal. To avoid confusion, humans use brumation or hibernation to refer to winter dormancy and estivation for summer/warm weather dormancy. Hibernation can be used to describe winter dormancy in any animal. Brumation generally refers only to reptiles.

For more information on the differences (or lack of differences) between hibernation and brumation, this post on The Obligate Scientist offers a nice explanation.

But Box Turtles Don’t Always Hibernate/Brumate

To make things just a little more confusing not all box turtles spend their winters in a dormant state.

In most of their range, winters get cold enough that they do need to hibernate.Box turtle eating strawberry

So the Eastern, Three-toed, and Ornate box turtles often hibernate in the winter. Depending on where they live, they may also estivate during a summer hot spell.

But in the southeastern US winters often stay warm enough the turtles can stay active. They may slow down a little, but don’t actually hibernate.

Two species that rarely if ever hibernate are the Florida Box Turtle and the Gulf Coast Box Turtle.

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