During the winter season, some tortoises go into long periods of inactivity. Here, they spend most of their time sleeping to conserve energy and body heat. This brumation process is natural and helpful.
However, not all tortoises brumate (or hibernate) during the winter season.
Mediterranean and North American tortoises brumate, including Hermann’s, horsefield, spur-thighed, marginated, desert, and gopher tortoises.
Tropical varieties of tortoises don’t brumate, such as leopard, Indian star, sulcata, yellow-foot, and red-foot tortoises.
Brumating tortoises conserves energy during cold weather. Also, it keeps tortoises from needing to eat when food is scarce.
In tropical areas, this is less common, so the need to brumate is eliminated. In colder regions, tortoises use it to adapt and survive.
Tortoises endemic to temperate (Mediterranean) climates brumate when the temperatures drop in the winter season. This is a natural way to conserve energy, endure a lack of food, and maintain body heat.
Here are tortoise species that go into brumation:
The Hermann’s tortoise is native to Mediterranean Europe, where the climate is marked by dry summers and wet winters. In the wild, these tortoises brumate during the cold season, when the temperatures drop below 45 degrees Fahrenheit.
When kept in captivity, Hermann’s tortoises can forgo brumation. However, it’s better for their health and growth if they endure their long sleep for at least 10-12 weeks, starting from late autumn to early spring.
Horsefield tortoises (or Russian tortoises) are endemic to regions in the Russian Steppes, India, China, and Afghanistan. These geographical areas experience significant drops in temperatures, especially between October and March. For this reason, wild horsefield tortoises brumate 2-4 months, starting from November each year.
These species brumate for longer periods since food resources in their natural habitats tend to run dry during the winter months. However, when kept in captivity, the brumation period can be shortened, as they can readily access the resources they need.
The spur-thighed tortoise is native to Europe and parts of the Middle East. Like other Mediterranean tortoises, this breed requires approximately 10-12 weeks of brumation.
Since they’re vulnerable to illnesses during the cold season, they need to be provided with a heat lamp and UV light throughout the brumation period.
The marginated tortoise originates from the mountainous regions of Southern Greece and isolated enclaves in Italy and Sardinia.
These tortoises hibernate in the wild during the winter season for 3-4 months as part of their cycle. Also, they will hibernate in captivity if the temperatures drop below 37 degrees Fahrenheit.
Tortoise varieties hailing from tropical regions do not need to hibernate.
Examples of non-brumating tortoise species include:
Leopard tortoises can be found throughout the arid and dry savannahs of Africa, in countries such as:
- South Africa
Since the areas they inhabit experience predominantly warm and temperate climates, they don’t need to brumate. They rarely find themselves in temperatures that require a long sleep. They tend to be active throughout the year.
The sulcata tortoise (or African spurred tortoise) is a species that originates from the deserts and grasslands of North Africa. Like other tropical tortoise breeds, sulcatas don’t hibernate.
They can tolerate low temperatures better when compared to other tortoise species. However, they require a stable daytime temperature of 85-105 degrees Fahrenheit to thrive.
Indian Star tortoises are native to the semi-arid grasslands and deciduous forests of Pakistan, Sri Lanka, and India. These durable reptiles are highly adaptable to cold temperatures and are active all year round, requiring a heat gradient of 90-95 degrees Fahrenheit to remain healthy.
Red-foot tortoises can be found throughout the forests and grasslands of South America and the Caribbean. While these tortoises don’t brumate, they usually become less active during the colder months of the year.
Adult red-footed tortoises can handle low nighttime temperatures of up to 45 degrees Fahrenheit. That is, as long as they receive ample basking time during the day.
The yellow-foot is a giant tortoise species that originate from the rainforests of Peru, Colombia, Venezuela, and Ecuador in South America. Like their smaller red-foot cousins, yellow-foot tortoises do not brumate during the cold season.
However, they require more stable environmental conditions when compared to red-footed tortoises. As such, artificial UV lighting should be maintained in their indoor enclosures and paired with a heating lamp to keep temperatures above 65 degrees Fahrenheit during the night.
Whether a tortoise needs to hibernate depends on where that particular species is originally from.
Mediterranean tortoises (such as Russian tortoises, spur-thighed tortoises, marginated tortoises, and Hermann’s tortoises) brumate for several months during the winter.
This is designed to conserve their energy and keep them warm. According to Copeia, the onset of brumation is characterized by behavioral changes, including reduced appetite and shelter-seeking behavior.
Tropical tortoises like the Indian-star tortoise, red-foot tortoise, sulcata tortoise, and leopard tortoise don’t brumate. They’re active all year round.
Tortoise species originating in tropical regions do not brumate in the wild since the climate in their habitat is stable throughout the year. Brumating a tortoise that doesn’t naturally hibernate can adversely affect its health or lead to death.
This cycle is essential for good health and survival among tortoises that naturally brumate. As another study from Copeia shows, hibernation allows Mediterranean tortoises to slow down their body metabolism and conserve their energy.
This is crucial during seasons when resources such as food and water are in short supply.
While tortoises brumate in the wild from the time they’re hatchlings, it’s not recommended to brumate baby tortoises because their plastron is still delicate.
Tortoises under 3 years should be kept awake inside a heated vivarium throughout the winter. If you allow them to brumate, only do so for shorter periods than older tortoises.
There is no agreed-upon consensus for the age at which a tortoise should brumate. Some people believe that tortoises should not be brumated for the first 5 years of their lives. Others believe that brumation from 1 year onwards isn’t just safe but crucial for healthy growth and development.
Individuals who vouch for brumating at an early age argue that doing so prevents tortoises from growing too quickly. However, this puts the tortoise at the risk of developing health conditions, such as metabolic bone disease (MBD). This can lead to the formation of a deformed or soft shell.
Nevertheless, it’s possible to strike a balance and brumate young tortoises. That is, so long as you have the right setup, with artificial UV light and heat lamps, to maintain the right temperature gradient.
If you decide to brumate baby tortoises, ensure the brumation period is appropriate for their age. In other words, the younger the tortoise, the shorter the brumation period.
Here’s the brumation period for tortoises based on their age:
|1 year||3 weeks|
|2 years||6 weeks|
|3 years||10 weeks|
|4 years||16 weeks|
|5 years and above||22 weeks|
Not all breeds of tortoise brumate. Some do so to remain healthy and grow properly, while others don’t brumate at all. By considering your unique tortoise species and planning accordingly, you can ensure it lasts throughout the winter comfortably.