Like other cold-blooded reptiles, terrapins need warm temperatures to keep their bodies warm and hibernate in winter when temperatures drop. In nature, when temperatures start dropping, terrapins start burrowing in the mud and preparing for spring.
Terrapins stay in hibernation for 2 to 4 months, depending on the outside weather conditions and temperatures. During hibernation, they are still able to perceive temperature changes and are sensitive to spring coming. That is how they know when to wake up, enjoy the long warm days and hot summer temperatures, and start reproducing.
What is hibernation?
Hibernation and brumation
The word “hibernate” is typically used for mammals. When it comes to reptiles, you will often hear the word “brumation”. You can think of brumation as a “light” form of hibernation.
In the life of a reptile like a terrapin, brumation comes before hibernation. During brumation, the terrapin slows downs its daily activities and becomes sluggish. It doesn’t eat or move much but has not yet entered hibernation mode. Only when temperatures drop even further does a terrapin move from brumation to hibernation.
Some reptiles stay in a brumation state without reaching hibernation, particularly if temperatures are not that cold. When temperatures pick up, they shake off brumation and become fully active again.
When temperatures drop further, some animals go into hibernation, which is an even slower way of living with even lower metabolic rates. In hibernation, animals need very little energy because they are in a state of semi-sleep. Their bodies don’t require any food or water since they are using very little energy.
Reptiles, including terrapins, are very sensitive to temperature changes. When days get shorter and temperatures drop, terrapins sense that change is coming. They slowly decrease their metabolic rate and their heart rate drops. Their whole life rhythms slow down significantly and they take a break from their activities to take a rest.
How do terrapins hibernate in the wild?
Hibernation from October to February
In the wild, terrapins usually hibernate from late October to February. The farther away from the equator, the more time terrapins will spend in hibernation. Temperature variations around the equator are minimal compared to more temperate regions, hence hibernation periods are shorter.
During hibernation, terrapins burrow under mud in a safe place where they will not be bothered by predators.
Terrapins can survive very low oxygen conditions because they can breathe through their cloaca, which is found at the bottom of their shell. The cloaca is an opening that is used for sexual reproduction and allows terrapins to lay eggs—which has led to the Internet meme that terrapins (and turtles) breathe through their bottoms. In fact, terrapins suck water through their cloaca during hibernation and use the oxygen in the water to breathe.
Because their breathing is very slow during hibernation, they need very little oxygen. Breathing through their cloaca brings in just enough oxygen to keep them alive. While cloaca respiration is not very efficient, it is still adequate during hibernation.
Waking up from hibernation
When temperatures start picking up, terrapins shake themselves off hibernation. Longer, warmer days are lying ahead of them, and they are ready to start eating, walking, swimming, and reproducing again.
Terrapins don’t grow during hibernation
Because terrapins eat no food during hibernation, they don’t grow. In fact, they lose weight.
Most of a terrapin’s weight gain is achieved during the warmer months, when they are active and bouncing around. The larger the terrapin, the safer it is against predators, so it must grow big and strong during spring and summer to fend off any predators. The extra weight also helps ensure they can survive hibernation.
How do terrapins hibernate in captivity?
Terrapins have adjusted to their outside environment and hibernation lets them consume very little energy when outside temperatures are not hot enough to warm them through.
While hibernation is a natural seasonal change, it can be controlled in captivity by manipulating the water temperature. If you keep the water temperature constant, the terrapin will not perceive any temperature change and won’t enter brumation and hibernation.
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However, you can choose to let your terrapin hibernate by manipulating the water temperature and sending the signal that colder weather is coming.
How to prepare your terrapin for hibernation
When preparing for hibernation in captivity, terrapins should not be fed at least for seven days, as they must evacuate their bowels to cleanse their bodies. The terrapinarium should be kept in a moderately cold place (cellar or room) and the temperature is to be checked regularly.
To induce hibernation in a captive terrapin, the water temperature should be reduced gradually to 4-7 degrees Celsius (39-44 degrees Fahrenheit).
Only a healthy terrapin should be allowed to hibernate
Owners should never encourage a sick or ailing terrapin to hibernate. A healthy terrapin has enough fat, vitamins, and calcium to survive hibernation but a sick terrapin doesn’t have enough stored fat and energy to keep it going, no matter how low its activity.
Lactic acid during hibernation
When terrapins go into hibernation, a by-product of their metabolic slowdown is the build-up of lactic acid. Terrapins offset lactic acid by utilizing the calcium and magnesium in their bodies, which is why they must be well-kept before going into hibernation. Calcium, in particular, is crucial for terrapins to keep a strong shell but also to overcome lactic acid build-up.
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If lactic acid builds up and the terrapin’s body is unable to balance it, it may never come out of hibernation and eventually die.
Weight and food during hibernation
While pet terrapins may hibernate before their breeding season starts, this is not essential. Hibernation is a survival mechanism that has evolved to help terrapins survive in adverse weather and temperature conditions. When these conditions vanish, terrapins have no reason to hibernate.
A proper diet and warm conditions during winter can keep them active and away from hibernation.
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Proper caution should be taken to avoid death if you choose to let your terrapin hibernate. Hibernation can last from one-and-a-half months to three months according to the terrapin’s body weight or size. During this time, they may be kept in boxes filled up with wet moss and placed in a cold place. Regular damping of the moss is necessary to avoid the terrapin’s dehydration and kidney failure.
Terrapins use the fat reserve of their bodies during hibernation. This causes a gradual reduction of body weight, which is why a weak and thin terrapin shouldn’t hibernate. You should weigh your terrapin before it goes into hibernation and after the recovery to check the difference.
A weekly weight check-up is also advised during this period. If there is too much weight loss (above 10%), the terrapin should be allowed to warm up slowly for a few hours by keeping her in some warm water. If you need to take her out of hibernation, also provide sunlight or artificial light and regular feeding to do so safely.
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Hibernation in an outdoor pond
Remember that terrapins have been categorized as an invasive, non-native species in the UK since August 2016. Terrapin owners who already had a terrapin before 2016 can keep them as long as they don’t reproduce them. Terrapins must be held in a contained holding, which means they can’t be kept in an outdoor pond because they can easily escape and find their way into the wild.
If you find a terrapin hibernating in an outdoor pond, you can help it survive by ensuring that the water surface does not freeze completely. The terrapin will need a muddy layer to dig and hide under. The pond should be at least one metre deep and have a bigger surface area to prevent oxygen deficiency. Rotten leaves should be removed regularly to keep the water clean.
Hibernation and caring for your terrapin
Hibernation is a survival mechanism. Unsurprisingly, it can be harsh on terrapins: they lose weight and lower their metabolic rate to almost zero. Once hibernation is over, you should take extra good care of your terrapin.
For a full guide on hibernating terrapins check out my full terrapin care guide review.
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