Turtles are fascinating creatures that have been around for over 200 million years. They are known for their longevity, slow-moving nature, and unique adaptations. One of the most interesting aspects of turtles is how they overwinter, or survive the winter months when temperatures drop and food becomes scarce.

Overwintering is the process by which turtles survive the cold winter months by lowering their metabolic rate and becoming dormant. In general, turtles will overwinter in either aquatic or terrestrial environments depending on their species and habitat preferences.

Aquatic turtles such as the painted turtle, will bury themselves in the mud at the bottom of ponds or lakes. They will also seek out deeper water that is less likely to freeze. The turtles will slow down their metabolism and heart rate, and reduce their oxygen consumption, allowing them to survive on stored energy and limited oxygen.

Western Painted Turtle

Turtles will not eat during the winter months. Instead, they will rely on their stored fat reserves for energy. This is why it is important to ensure that turtles have enough food and basking opportunities available to them in the fall before they enter into hibernation or brumation.

Winter can be risky for turtles. Some may not survive due to freezing temperatures or predation. Additionally, changes in weather patterns and habitat destruction can also affect the availability and auditability of brumation habitat which can affect their survival.

WPC’s conservation program protects hatchling turtles through incubation and their first year of life in specially-designed facilities. The tropical winter vacation keeps them awake and eating, allowing them to grow to the size of 3 or 4 year old in one year.  This process eliminates the risk of predation during that first critical year but also provides them with the advantage of being larger when released to the wild, ensuring that more than 90% will reach adulthood.

We are working to protect and conserve these ancient animals by understanding how turtles overwinter and the challenges they face.

Andrea Gielens

Lead biologist – Fraser Valley Wetlands Wildlife

Andrea manages WPC’s captive breeding and release programs for the Oregon spotted frog and the coastal western painted turtle. Andrea studied at-risk reptiles and amphibians in Canada and abroad, including a term at the Durrell Wildlife Conservation Trust in Jersey. Andrea also manages the Taylor’s checkerspot butterfly recovery program in BC.

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