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Do Snapping Turtles Hibernate in the Winter?

Come to think of it, when the ambient temperature becomes too cold or almost freezing, how do reptile animals such as snapping turtles survive? If this concerns you a lot, you’re not alone. Many snappers enthusiasts asked the same. “Do Snapping Turtles Hibernate In The Winter?” Let’s find out in this article.

Hibernation and brumation may have a lot in common but the two phenomena aren’t the same. 

Many reptile animals for various reasons reduce their metabolism and energy consumption during a particular season of the year so that they can survive the period, this process is what is referred to as hibernation. 

This usually happens during the winter months. While the animals are in hibernation, they often sleep more and eat very little to nothing till the whole winter period is over.

But brumation isn’t exactly the same. Brumation, in a nutshell, isn’t true or deep sleep as hibernation is.

That is why as a reptile enthusiast, it is very important that you understand what hibernation is, why your species of animal hibernate, the health benefits to your animal, and what you should do as a keeper to ensure that your pet hibernates successfully.

For this reason, we’ll discuss all these issues in this article and outline to you several steps you should take to hibernate your pet snapping turtle.

Read on to learn more!

What Is Hibernation?

During winter, many animals struggle to get enough food since their primary food sources, such as insects and green plants, become scarce. During this period, hibernation is one way for these animals to deal with the problem. For some other kinds of animals, the winter months are just too cold for them to bear. Hence, to survive the period, they need to hibernate. 

From the explanations above, hibernation can best be described as a means that allows animals to conserve energy in order to survive harsh weather conditions or a shortage of food. 

Hibernation occurs when an animal’s heart rate is slowed to conserve energy and allow it to endure the winter without eating much. During hibernation, some animals just slow down and move less frequently, while others enter a deep torpor and do not wake until spring.

Hibernation causes the animal’s body temperature to drop and also its heartbeat and respiration to slow down, allowing the animal to conserve energy. Most times, some animals that hibernate fall into such a long deep sleep that waking them up is nearly impossible, and they look to be dead. 

Usually, hibernating animals prepare for their winter hibernation by eating lots of food and store it as body fat, which they use as energy while sleeping.

When the temperature drops too low, usually below freezing point, some animals will wake up for just a while and shiver to keep themselves warm. Some hibernators may also wake up every few weeks for a brief period to poop and eat a small amount of food if it is available.

Do Snapping Turtles Hibernate In The Winter?

Do Snapping Turtles Hibernate In The Winter? They brumate instead
Snapping turtle hibernating in winter
Photo credit: TH Fishing

Frankly, sea turtles do not hibernate, as they usually wake up during the process to move a bit. Snapping turtles are no exception. Snapping Turtles Brumate Instead. Brumation for cold-blooded animals such as snapping turtles is hibernation.

In the wild, snapping turtles normally slow down their metabolism and energy consumption so that they can survive through the winter period. As they’re brumating, you can see them and other species of turtles move around under the ice while their metabolism runs at a very low ebb. 

During this period also, they tend to remain alert to changes in the environmental temperature and light that signal to them that spring is approaching. This kind of sleep is what is called brumation. 

In brumation, the animals are not completely into a long and deep sleep and they’re also conscious of changes in their environment. However, in hibernation, the hibernating animal is into a very long deep sleep and may not wake up until the process is over.

Snapping turtle hibernation in the winter [source: Snake Discovery]

In captivity, snapping turtles do not need to brumate to stay healthy. But if you’re considering breeding your snappers, you should brumate them. 

Brumation or hibernation is often the first step that introduces wild reptiles to mating. This is because, after the winter period is over, the animals become more interested in the opposite sex and mating.

That said, what should you do as a breeder? Depending on your intentions of raising a snapping turtle and also the weather condition of your house at the time, you may not need to manually induce brumation for your pet snapper. 

If you don’t intend to breed your snapper, and during winter, the ambient room temperature of your house is still warm, do not bother with brumating your snapper. 

However, if you want to breed your pet or the temperature of your house drops drastically during winter, this will trigger your animal to eat less and sleep more. 

When you notice this behavior in your pet, allow it the time to brumate by gradually reducing the amount of daylight supply and temperature from 12 hours a day to 8 hours and subsequently 6 hours after two weeks. 

Note: One thing you should have in mind is that you should not force your animal to brumate or hibernate.

When And Where Do Snapping Turtles Hibernate?

Depending on your time zone, snapping turtles and all reptiles, in general, brumate (hibernate) in the winter when the temperature is too cold and food becomes scarce. 

They spend this time in the bottom of ponds and lakes beneath the ice that covers these water bodies. They are able to survive this period because of several adaptations that will be discussed in the next sections.

snapping turtle brumate in water
Snapping turtles brumate in the water during winter when the temperature is too cold and food becomes scarce. 

What Happens When A Snapping Turtle Hibernates?

Snapping turtles are believed to brumate instead of hibernating because, during this period, they do wake up to move around the water but at a very slow rate. 

As stated earlier, snapping turtles are able to survive through the cold winter months because of some adaptations to include:

#1 Their Metabolism Slows Down In Cold Water

Being cold-blooded or ectothermic, snapping turtles adjust their body temperatures based on the temperature of their surroundings. 

Thus, in very cold water, say freezing water, snapping turtles will drop their body temperatures and metabolism to match it. 

In extreme cases, their metabolism can slow down to 99% allowing them to survive even without food and oxygen for up to 100 days.

However, when they do this, their bodies usually build up acids that can damage some vital organs in their body. 

So to get rid of the excess acid, they use calcium from their shells to neutralize the acid. Thus, it is right to say that a snapping turtle that didn’t have a sufficient amount of calcium in its body before going into brumation may not survive the period if winter prolongs. 

#2 They Winter In The Water

One other adaptation snapping turtles use to survive through winter is by staying in the water and not on land. This is because, during winter, the ambient water temperature remains constant while the air temperature keeps fluctuating.

#3 They Can Absorb Oxygen Through Their Skin

Snapping turtles normally take oxygen into their lungs in the same way as we humans do. 

However, when they are trying to survive through the winter underneath the water, they cannot breathe oxygen into their lungs as they used to because the entire water is covered with ice. 

Instead, they absorb oxygen from the water through parts of their body that are filled with blood vessels such as the skin and cloaca. This kind of respiration is referred to as cloacal respiration (what some people call butt breathing).

#4 They Can Survive In Low Oxygen Environments

Snapping turtles can slow their metabolism to one that doesn’t need oxygen. 

This usually happens when fishes and other sea animals under the ice use up most of the oxygen in the water leaving the environment with very little or no oxygen to absorb. But as they do this, acids build up in their bodies and can damage their tissues. 

To survive it, they’ll use calcium from their shells to neutralize the acids that build up. This also tells us that a snapping turtle that is lacking a sufficient amount of calcium is likely not to survive through winter.

How Long Does A Snapping Turtle Hibernate?

On average, snapping turtles can hibernate or brumate for 100 days or more. Frankly, how long, all depends on how long winter lasts. Mostly, winter lasts for 3 -4 months. In some regions in the United States, some snapping turtles were seen hibernating for up to 6 months.

What Is The Difference Between “Brumation” And Hibernation For Snapping Turtles?

Both hibernation and brumation are very similar to each other. They both are a type of inactive state where the animal’s body temperature, heart rate, metabolism rate, and respiratory rate declines to almost zero enabling the animal to use very little to no energy while asleep. 

The major difference between these two is that, during brumation, the animals are awake or they are conscious but during hibernation, the animals are in a long deep sleep and may not wake up till the period is over. 

One other difference between hibernation and brumation is that hibernation is a term often used to refer to specific species of endothermic animals such as mammals (bears) while brumation is used for cold-blooded animals; specifically, reptiles and amphibians.

Brumation is likened to reptiles and amphibians that remain in “deep sleep” where they pass through the same process of inactivity and low body temperature, low heart rate, low metabolic rate, and low respiratory rate. Animals in brumation consume food beforehand which makes them different from hibernators. 

Hibernating animals need to eat to have enough food stored in their bodies to last them through their hibernation period while brumating animals stop eating before entering inactivity as their metabolic rate drops so low that they are unable to fully digest their meal until the outside temperature increases.

Hibernating animals are difficult to wake up. Typically, they remain sleeping even if they are disturbed but brumating animals will move around to find food and water. It is usual to find a turtle wandering around during the winter on warmer days.

Personal Thoughts: Do Humans Hibernate In Winter?

Do humans have the capacity to hibernate in winter? How do you flourish through the darkest months of the year such as the Covid-19 period? Isn’t it interesting to wonder?

“If I can hibernate, I think I will hibernate to wait for the coronavirus season to pass. How graceful the experience would have been should humans have the ability to hibernate. We wouldn’t have to wait until winter before hibernating, we could just hibernate at any given time. Unfortunately, we can’t”. 

Interestingly, a neurologist, Anna Wernick in her article posited that fossils evidence from Spain suggests that early humans may have hibernated for up to four months at a time. As weird as this may sound, this is probably going to be the “early stone age” of man’s existence where food and clothing weren’t in abundant supply.

Final Thoughts

Brumation is very similar to hibernation. The only and major difference between these two is that, during brumation, the animals are awake but during hibernation, the animals are in a long deep sleep and may not wake till the period is over. 

Also, brumation is mostly used to refer to reptiles and amphibians that slow down their metabolism so that they can survive through winter. While hibernation is used to refer to warm-blooded animals that undergo the same process.

In captivity, your pet Snapping turtles may not have the privilege to brumate since they are provided with an enclosure that is all-year warm. 

However, that doesn’t rule out your pet snapping turtle’s natural ability to hibernate during the winter if it is exposed to such weather conditions.

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