Good morning, sleepyhead! Spring brings the turtles out to play

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 creature be inactive (without eating or drinking) 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.  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 previously 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 into 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!

Filed under: pets, connected — Liz Palika @ 5:34 am


  1. Yay — turtle blogging! Thanks for sharing – great photo! I have both a male and female Three Toed Box Turtle; during the last few weeks they’ve been coming out of their straw pile in their outdoor enclosure (in San Francisco, CA). Sadly, my female – newest acquisition (I’ve had her just under two years – first season I overwintered her in an indoor set-up and did not allow her to brumate) came out with multiple health problems. :( Thankfully, she’s improved dramatically while indoors getting special care in a hospital set-up. The male (in his 30s) I’ve had since 1992 – he was a rescue that had been chewed up by a dog and kept in a filthy cold water tank – is doing great. I also have a wonderful, people-loving 30+ yr old female Reeves that I’ve had since 1992. Before these guys, I adopted a large adult male Softshell turtle that was incredibly destructive – he destroyed anything within reach in his tank – eventually I had to set-up a tank divider for his heater and filtration system. He had chewed up a heater once – that was just awful, but he somehow lived through it just fine!! He loved to play with/attack/shake “kill” and carry around floating rubber dog toys in his tank. I had Neptune for many years (passed away at about 20-25 years old??, which was really sad, but from what I could tell, was an average/respectable enough age for that particular species – some species of Softshells can live a lot longer though). Turtles are a big part of my family here (along with the birds, Great Danes, and kitty). The Danes and I just came home from the garden center where we bought a bunch of organic edibles to plant in the turtle enclosure – lots of strawberries, squash, tomatoes (right now, I’m buying them strawberries to eat but they like them right off the plant). The special “turtle mix” grass and broadloaf plant seeds I planted about a month ago are sprouting nicely already and the worms are abundant enough to feed everyone (including our 10-yr old Goldfish, Poppy) in the corner of the enclosure reserved for compost (which we add only turtle safe scraps to – no onion, coffee, black tea, etc.) Nice to hear of other Box Turtles living outdoors in California – keep the turtle blogs coming!

    Comment by kasie — April 2, 2009 @ 4:46 pm

  2. We live in Humboldt County about two days drive north of you on an acre about a mile inland from the ocean.

    We’ve put in a big 40’x50’pond that is from a few inches to a little over 4 ft. deep. There are currently goldfish and mosquito fish, that we introduced, and two species of frogs that have shown up on their own. We get lots of tadpoles, so the frogs seem to find it to their liking.

    It’s lined, but is really a wildlife pond with branches piled in it at both ends for cover and an attached small bog garden with cattails, tule and native iris. The entire property has 6′ fencing around it.

    We have four cats and a collie dog. Is there a species of turtle that would be appropriate for our situation that could happily live down at the pond and do its own thing with us supplying some food?

    Comment by Susan Fox — April 2, 2009 @ 6:11 pm

  3. Glad to read there are turtle fans here!

    Susan, I am not familar with your area so don’t know what turtles would thrive there. Western pond turtles live from Washington south through Baja California, but they can be quite shy and might not tolerate any attention from the cats or dog.

    Do an internet search and find out if there is a turtle and tortoise club in your area. They would be able to tell you more.

    Good luck.

    Comment by Liz Palika — April 2, 2009 @ 9:09 pm

  4. Thanks, Liz, I’ll do that.

    Comment by Susan Fox — April 2, 2009 @ 9:14 pm

  5. Liz, what a welcome addition to the petconnection site! I have an eastern box turtle, my little Sammi girl.

    Sammi paid us a visit on Tuesday, poking her head out for the first time in well over a month. My mom (just out of a chemo session) and myself (fried to a crisp from radiation) took this sweet girl out of her tank and gave her a bath to warm her up and hydrate her. A few strawberries and a grape tomato and she’s getting back to her sassy self. Sammi was a wonderful reminder of spring and renewal.

    Sammi begs like a dog every morning and walks around this house like she owns it. Whoever said turtles are slow haven’t met Sammi. She loves to take her strolls through the house, with supervision, of course. The cats can’t quite figure her out but leave her to her turtle business.

    She’s most fond of shredded mulch for burrowing. And messing up her home right after I’ve tidied things up. Sammi is without a doubt the cutest animal I have ever owned.

    I’m loving the turtle blogging – just love it! Thanks so much!

    Comment by Sharon H — April 3, 2009 @ 8:40 am

  6. Hi Susan,

    Yes, some species can live where you are happily year-around (the ubiquitous Red Eared Slider comes to mind – RES are native to the US, non-native to CA, but have naturalized here very well indeed – they do wonderfully here in the man-made ponds and water features in SF all year). However, to be responsible about it – you’d want to ensure predators did not have easy as pie access by making some modifications (though having it well-planted with lots of hiding places helps A LOT) and also be sure to enclose the pond area so that your non-native species would not escape. For my 4’x8′ “urban sized” enclosure, I have framed 1/4 inch wire mesh locking lids on hinges and our entire yard/garden is enclosed for the cat with the Cat Fence-In System (the kind that keeps other animals out, too). For an area as large as yours is, it would be impractical to cover the entire area but you could build a fence for the pond itself (you’d need to dig down at least 18″ to put the fence in so the turtle doesn’t dig out and raccoons and such don’t dig in). Raccoons just LOVE to eat turtles. Great Blue Herons can sometimes kill and eat them, too. Might be worth contacting a local turtle group for more information as well as finding a healthy rescue turtle to adopt. Down here the city shelters typically get a lot of the RES in, but if you adopt from an actual turtle rescue or knowledgeable person, you may have a better overall experience and end up with a healthier turtle, too. Oh BTW – your turtle will eat some of your fish, so you need to be prepared for that aspect of turtledom. Helpful orgs to google are included below:

    BAARS (Bay Area group – check out their links section!)

    California Turtle & Tortoise Club

    V. A. Haecky’s Turtle Information Pages

    Melissa Kaplan’s site (anapsid)

    World Chelonian Trust (lots of good info here)

    Comment by kasie — April 4, 2009 @ 6:51 pm

  7. Liz – have you seen this one:

    I haven’t had the time (or energy!) to read through it yet, but apparently it’s causing some concern.

    Comment by The OTHER Pat — April 8, 2009 @ 4:53 pm

  8. Just a question: someone gave me two box turtles last summer. They are in pen in the back yard. The little one recently came out of brumation and he (she?) is doing just fine. He even hissed at me when I picked him up today. The big one is still not active. He just has his limbs spread out and is very limp. Does that sound normal? I soaked him for a few minutes today and now the head has come out a little bit. I have never had box turtles before.

    Comment by Elaine — April 22, 2009 @ 1:47 pm

  9. Hello
    My box turtle didn’t hibernate this winter. He lives inside an aquarium near the french doors.
    He seems to be trying to hibernate now, is that possible?hibernating
    He is sluggish and sleeping and occasionally walks to a new spot. He went in the water yesterday. He looks healthy his shell and eyes look good. I don’t know what to do for him, do you have any suggestions?

    Comment by Lisa — April 19, 2011 @ 5:13 pm

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