Hibernation is a widespread practice among a variety of animals, reptiles included. Or, should I say, especially reptiles. Most tortoises hibernate as well, especially those living in seasonal ecosystems, as is the case with the Russian tortoise.
This small tortoise makes for a great companion thanks to its hardiness and charming personality.
But it’s best to remember that this species can and should hibernate when the time is right. This means you need to provide it with the ideal conditions to ensure proper hibernation and reduce the risks associated with inadequate brumation.
So, let’s discuss this in more detail!
6 Signs of Impending Hibernation
The first thing on today’s list is learning when your tortoise is getting ready to hibernate. This is critical because it allows you to make the necessary preparations in time.
Here are the top signs that your Russian tortoise is about to enter its slumber sleep:
Lack of Appetite
The lack of appetite will usually become visible approximately 1-3 weeks before the actual hibernation sets in. However, this period is preceded by an increase in appetite.
The phenomenon is the result of the tortoise aiming to pack in as many nutrients as possible before the beginning of hibernation.
That’s because the reptile won’t eat or drink anything for a period of several weeks to several months, depending on the hibernation’s duration.
Once the tortoise has gathered sufficient nutrients, it will suddenly stop eating several days to several weeks prior to hibernation. This behavior also has an evolutionary explanation, and it relates to the changes that the tortoise’s body undergoes during hibernation.
The reptile’s metabolism will drop significantly during this phase, so its digestive system won’t function anymore. This means that any food still present in the stomach will simply decay, affecting the reptile’s health in the process.
To avoid that, the tortoise refrains from eating several weeks prior so that it can enter hibernation with an empty belly. Isn’t evolution a wonderful process?
Reduced Activity Level
Tortoises don’t just enter hibernation abruptly. Instead, the process is a slow and methodical one, and you should be able to observe it in real-time.
The first indicator, aside from the lack of appetite, is the reptile’s reduced activity level.
This is the result of a slower metabolism, causing the tortoise to spend more time in hiding and moving less as time passes.
This signifies that the tortoise has entered its energy conservation phase and that the hibernation journey is about to unfold.
Seeking Out Cooler Places
This is a natural and obvious behavior that’s easily explained by the reptile’s own physiological functioning. When warming up in their favorite basking spot, tortoises increase their metabolism thanks to the warmth they’re receiving.
But their goal is to reduce their body temperature, not to increase it. So, they will spend more time in their hiding box and stick to the shaded areas the closer they come to their nap time.
It’s not normal for the tortoise to avoid the basking spot, given that these reptiles love warmth more than any other species.
So, if your small tortoise exhibits low energy and avoids the basking area, you know what’s coming.
The slower metabolism may give the impression that the tortoise is lethargic and sick. This is a common misconception among those unfamiliar with the tortoise’s hibernating behavior.
As time approaches, the tortoise’s slower metabolism may cause it to appear slow and even unresponsive at times.
However, this behavior warns of the need for caution. Tortoises can exhibit lethargy for a variety of reasons, including stress and sickness.
So, you should always corroborate the lethargic behavior with other potential symptoms to diagnose your tortoise’s condition accurately.
Shedding Shell Scutes
This is an interesting behavior because it serves 2 purposes:
- Better temperature regulation – Shell scutes are basically keratin plates that build the shell’s outer layer. These are hard and resilient structures that serve 2 purposes: defense and insulation. Shell scutes provide an extra layer of protection against predators and insulate the tortoise’s body by keeping the heat in. The problem is that the older the scutes get, the less effective they become at fulfilling both roles. So, the tortoise drops the scutes and reveals the newer ones underneath. The newer scute layer provides better insulation, allowing the tortoise to regulate its body temperature more effectively.
- Shell growth – The shedding of the shell scutes is part of the tortoise’s growth process. This means that the hibernation process fulfills several roles, including allowing the tortoise to grow properly.
Just make sure that the shell scutes falling off isn’t a sign of calcium deficiency or Metabolic Bone Disease. MBD is known to inflict shell damage due to the lack of calcium, which leads to the shell becoming brittle and even cracking at times.
Pulling Limbs Inward
Tortoises can pull their limbs inside their shell. This is typically for 2 reasons: protection and insulation. If your tortoise pulls its limbs inward, this is a sign that it’s getting ready for hibernation.
The behavior typically aims to provide the reptile with better insulation so that the body temperature remains stable during the hibernation phase.
A disclaimer here: always assess and corroborate the tortoise’s behaviors properly. All of the behaviors I’ve mentioned so far could easily indicate health issues when taken in the right context.
So, make sure you understand the difference between the 2 situations to keep your tortoise safe.
Preparing Your Tortoise for Hibernation
So, you’ve determined without a doubt that your Russian tortoise is getting ready to hibernate? What’s your role in this whole story?
Consider the following preparation must-dos:
- Ensure your tortoise is fit for hibernation – Not all tortoises can undergo hibernation. Sick specimens should receive proper treatment before qualifying for the task. Otherwise, the tortoise may not be able to complete the hibernation process and may even die in the process.
- Lower the temperature gradually – Russian tortoises, and all reptiles in general, know that the time for hibernation has come by assessing their environmental temperatures. As the temperatures drop, the tortoise’s body begins to undergo its typical metabolic transformation. However, the drop in temperature should unfold gradually. A sudden temperature drop can send the tortoise into shock and affect its immune system. Drop the temperature gradually by the day until it evens out between 40 and 60 F.
- Reduce lighting – Drop the lighting levels accordingly to provide your tortoise with a cool and dark hibernating area. This will improve the tortoise’s comfort level and peace of mind during the hibernating journey. Also, move the reptile’s enclosure to a cool, shaded, and calm room with as little noise as possible.
- Create a moist shelter – The tortoise won’t drink any water during hibernation. But the reptile needs to remain hydrated anyway to prevent health problems and respiratory issues. Keep the habitat humidity between 40 and 60% and get a hygrometer to monitor humidity values properly. You may also need a moisture-retaining substrate for a boost in humidity.
- Allow turtle to fast during pre-hibernation – A fasting period is absolutely necessary for pre-hibernation. This is because the reptile’s metabolism will drop significantly, effectively ceasing the animal’s digestive activity. With the digestive system now inactive, the tortoise may no longer be able to digest any food still present in the stomach. This may lead to food rotting, causing severe health problems. Your Russian tortoise shouldn’t eat anything for about 2 weeks prior to hibernation. Fortunately, the animal knows that anyway, so it will stop eating on its own accord.
You should also monitor your tortoise throughout the hibernation journey to make sure everything goes as planned. Keep contact with your tortoise-specialized vet for any abnormalities along the way.
Russian Tortoise Hibernation Patterns and Duration
Understanding your pet’s hibernation behavior is essential for learning how to prepare it for the routine.
Here are a few interesting markers to help you with that:
- The start of hibernation – It all comes down to the temperature. Russian tortoises prepare for hibernation the moment their environmental temperature drops below 50 F regularly.
- Hibernation duration – The duration of the hibernation phase varies wildly depending on the tortoise itself and environmental parameters. The Russian tortoise can hibernate between 2 weeks and 6 months if necessary. The duration depends on the environment and how well-prepared the tortoise is for the event. However, on average, most Russian tortoises will hibernate between 1.5 and 3 months.
- Ideal hibernation conditions – The ideal temperature revolves around 40-50 F, no lower, no higher. The tortoise will seek a hidden, dark, and humid spot to hibernate, so make sure you provide those conditions in captivity.
Benefits of Proper Hibernation
Hibernation in tortoises delivers several benefits, such as:
- Enhance growth – Russian tortoises grow during hibernation by shedding shell layers, allowing the shell to expand with each hibernation phase.
- Improve the immune response – Hibernation allows the tortoise to cool off, reset its immune system, and lower its stress levels.
- Survive scarcity – Russian tortoises hibernate primarily because they have to. Otherwise, they won’t be able to survive the harsh conditions of the winter season.
You should always support your tortoise’s hibernation behavior by ensuring adequate enclosure layout, conditions, and care before, during, and after the hibernation ends.
Keep in contact with your vet for assistance and guidance regarding the hibernation phenomenon.
Russian tortoises hibernate out of necessity, and they have gotten really good at it. Even if you intend to keep the tortoise in a stable habitat, you should still provide it with proper hibernating conditions.
The tortoise’s tendency to brumate is written in its genetic code; ignoring it can lead to health problems and a shorter lifespan overall.