By Liz Palika
April 2, 2009
My box turtles are coming out of hibernation now and remind me – in a weird sort of way – of cats in the sun. They crawl out from under their pile of straw, yawn, stretch, bask in the sun and even go back to sleep while enjoying the sunshine. A box turtle in the sun with his head neck stretched out, head on the ground, and all four legs stretched out and limp is a funny sight! This morning I filled up their plant saucers with water so it could warm up in the sunshine, too, as I know all the turtles will want to drink once they fully wake up. In my back yard, I know spring is really here once my orchids have bloomed, the trees begin to leaf out, and the turtles appear!
Hibernation is something that has always fascinated me. How on earth can a creatureÂ be inactive (without eating or drinking)Â for so many months (Russian tortoises in Siberia may hibernate for eight months out of the year) and yet survive? While doing some research for some of my books on reptiles, I found that there is really alot we don’t know about hibernation. We do know that mammals that hibernate – such as bears – live off their fat reserves during this time and usually come out of hibernation thin and very hungry. Some even bear their young during this time.
Reptiles – healthy, well fed ones – do not live off their fat reserves and often come out of hibernation just as chubby as when they began. Unlike mammals, reptiles often are awake during this time, too, although very sluggish due to the cold temperatures. Because there are some differences in the process, many experts call what reptiles do ‘brumation’ rather than hibernation.
In the reptiles where brumation is normal – such as most box turtles, many aquatic turtles, garter snakes, most rattlesnakes, some tortoise, among others – this period of slowdown is important for good hormonal health. The period of time after brumation sets the reptile’s fertility clock; telling him (or her!) that it’s time for breeding.Â The cooling period stimulates the production of sperm and begins the ovulation process.
For the species in which brumation is normal, it usually begins in the fall when the days get shorter. Less daylight and drops in nightime temperature all begin an instinctive process. I usually find that a box turtle with a normally insatiable appetite will stop eating. During this time I make sure they always have plenty of water because they like to soak before hibernation. This makes sure all the food and wastes in their system are cleaned out. During brumation the digestive system isn’t working and any food will rot – usually causing the animal to die.
Only heathy reptiles should be allowed to brumate. If a reptile is underweight, has a respiratory infection, has parasites, or is in any way not up to par, it should be brought inside and kept warm. Continue feeding and provide any needed veterinary care. I also don’t allow baby turtles to brumate for the first three years. I want them to be big and strong before they go into brumation as there is always some risk with this process. Even though it’s natural, some reptiles will pass away, usually because of a previouslyÂ unknown health problem.
My box turtles hibernate outside as our climate here in northern San Diego county is perfect for that. It gets cold enough for them to brumate yet there is no chance of a hard freeze that could kill them. In tougher climates it’s a better idea to set your reptiles up in a cool place inside (the garage, attic, basement, or even a closet in an unheated room). I offer several different places where my turtles can dig in intoÂ loose soil topped with piles of straw.
Once the turtles dig in, I usually don’t see them until spring. However, if the weather warms up during the winter, a turtle may amble out to soak in the rain or to get a drink, only to disappear agin when the weather cools down again.
When the reptile comes out of hibernation, as my box turtles are now, they need plenty of water to rehydrate their body, and then as they warm up, they will be hungry. I usually offer strawberries, tomatoes, red hibiscus flowers or red or pink rose blossoms initially to both turtles and tortoises. For some unknown reason, red is very attractive to them as they first begin to eat. But once they have started to eat, they go back to their normal diet. Which for my box turtles outside, that means digging for grubs and earthworms as well as munching on the occassional bit of fruit or flowers. Snails are also a delicacy. Yum!