Hibernation is called brumation in reptiles, as they don’t sleep throughout this long rest. Instead, a brumating tortoise may wake up at intervals to drink or change position.
Brumation is a cold-weather adaption that allows them to endure low temperatures and reserve energy, but not all tortoises brumate.
If your tortoise species brumates, replicating this process will enable them to experience a more natural metabolic cycle. The tortoise will grow at a balanced rate and benefit from a more robust immune system.
Never hibernate sick and underweight tortoises because they’re unlikely to survive.
Are Tortoises Supposed To Hibernate?
Brumation allows tortoises to survive low temperatures during the winter. Also, it prevents them from starving, as food and water resources are likely to be limited during these months.
It’s a natural instinct and biological process that begins as soon as tortoises experience temperatures lower than 45-50 degrees Fahrenheit.
This indicates that winter has arrived and that food will soon be in limited supply. So, many species are supposed to hibernate if they’re exposed to low temperatures consistently.
Since tortoises are ectothermic, they can’t generate body heat to survive in low temperatures. So, their body goes into a low-activity, low-metabolic state to handle this change.
According to Scientific Reports, tortoises aren’t harmed by brumation, as long as they put on the necessary weight before they brumate.
When in captivity, tortoises don’t strictly need to hibernate as you can maintain warmer temperatures for them to simulate year-round summer.
Also, you can ensure that your tortoise has constant access to food and water. If you want to brumate your tortoise, there are benefits, depending on its species.
However, new owners shouldn’t help hatchlings brumate as they may not survive. Some tortoise species don’t naturally brumate, so forcing them to will likely result in premature death.
Why Do Tortoises Need To Hibernate?
As mentioned, tortoises are cold-blooded, which means they can’t regulate their body temperature.
If a tortoise is cold, it’ll seek warmth by basking in the sun or burrowing into the ground. If the tortoise gets too cold, it’ll brumate. So, their metabolism slows when the temperature drops.
Every physiologic process, from digestion to reproduction, becomes limited. The body temperature drops, the heartbeat and respiration slow, and energy is conserved.
Because hormone production is cut off during brumation, a tortoise’s growth rate is slowed. If your tortoise doesn’t brumate, it’ll develop faster than normal, affecting its health.
A tortoise will emerge from brumation as the weather warms up in the spring. A hormone spike will ensue, resulting in a healthy body and a normal reproductive cycle.
Which Tortoises Hibernate?
Tortoise species that hibernate include:
- Russian Tortoises (horsefield tortoises)
- Gopher tortoises
- Desert Tortoises
- Hermann’s Tortoises
- Marginated Tortoises
- Spur-thighed tortoises (Greek tortoises)
Which Tortoises Don’t Hibernate?
Tortoise species that don’t brumate include:
- African spurred sulcata tortoise
- Egyptian tortoises
- Radiated tortoises
- Red-footed tortoises
- Yellow-footed tortoises
- Leopard tortoises
- Hinge back tortoises
- Golden Greek tortoises
Do Tortoises Hibernate In Captivity?
Tortoise species that brumate naturally in the wild can safely do so in captivity.
This can be a healthy practice as it’ll help your tortoise replicate the natural, biological processes it experiences in the wild and keep its metabolism balanced. Some tortoises feel better and grow more consistently when allowed to brumate each year.
If your tortoise’s species doesn’t brumate in the wild, you should avoid doing so in captivity. Likewise, hatchlings shouldn’t brumate unless you’re very experienced in raising tortoises. Hatchlings up to 3 years old should be kept awake in a heated vivarium during the winter.
Older tortoises can be brumated when a normal weight and in good health. Weighing your tortoise and calculating its weight-to-size ratio ensures that your tortoise is fit for brumation.
How Do Tortoises Survive Hibernation?
Tortoises in brumation require enough body fat to survive, which stores energy and water.
They live off these reserves while brumating. If the reserves are depleted prematurely, the tortoise’s body will burn the fat stored in its muscles and internal organs.
Therefore, tortoises must have accumulated sufficient body fat reserves to survive brumation. Tortoises without sufficient fat or water will perish due to starvation or dehydration.
However, they mustn’t eat in the two weeks before brumation commences. Brumation prevents the digestive process, so food will rot inside a tortoise’s stomach, resulting in severe illness or disease.
Tortoise Hibernation Temperature
The ideal holding temperature for brumation is about 41 degrees Fahrenheit. Depending on the species, temperatures range from 39-44 degrees Fahrenheit.
The surroundings must be frost-free, with temperatures above 32 degrees Fahrenheit.
Tortoises kept below this temperature range will risk:
- Frost damage to their eyes and toes
- Serious metabolic impairment
Tortoises held above this temperature range may awaken and return to sleep, depleting the fat reserves needed for survival.
How Long Do Tortoises Brumate?
Most small and average-sized species of tortoises brumate for 8-10 weeks, and they shouldn’t brumate for more than 12 weeks.
Larger species of tortoises can brumate for up to 16 weeks.
How To Brumate A Tortoise
According to Chelonian Conservation and Biology, tortoises often burrow into the ground to brumate for protection against predators and to allow greater privacy.
The most common methods for brumating tortoises in captivity include:
The Fridge Method
A fridge offers your tortoise a secure location to rest without being disturbed.
The temperature will be controlled and balanced, with little risk of changes due to external factors, aside from a power cut. Once your tortoise has finished brumating, you can remove it and allow them to awaken gradually.
This should be a separate fridge, not where your food is stored, because most tortoises carry salmonella on their shell or skin. Also, the temperature will fluctuate when someone opens the door.
Put the fridge in a room with temperature control, like a back room, home office, or bedroom.
The Box Method
The box method involves keeping your tortoise in a secure cage outside, ideally in a garage or shed. This allows it to experience the normal winter temperatures of your region.
Ensure that the space is well-protected and safe from sudden environmental changes. Flooding, curious pets, wild animals, bugs, frost, and spikes in temperature must all be avoided.
Why Do Tortoises Die In Hibernation?
Tortoises can die during brumation for the following reasons:
If an untreated sickness was likely the culprit, it might be that the tortoise dies during brumation.
As the bodily processes slow down, your tortoise becomes vulnerable to illnesses. As a result, an existing sickness, such as respiratory problems, can have fatal consequences if it escalates.
Sometimes, the gut isn’t adequately prepared for brumation, which happens when a tortoise eats two weeks before or during brumation.
The food remains in the intestines, rotting internally and causing a bacterial infection.
Freezing temperatures of around -26 C dramatically reduce a tortoise’s chances of survival. Depending on where you live, this can occur in the height of winter.
Also, once a temperature rises above 10 C, this accelerates fat burning, leaving them with insufficient fat reserves to survive 8-10 weeks without food.
You can prevent death during brumation by ensuring that your tortoise is prepared in advance. Ensure that the temperature range is optimal and no dangers are present.