You most likely already know that many snakes and lizards hibernate, but did you know that pretty much all tortoises engage in the same behavior too?
The hibernation process has different drives for different species, so the reasons why some snake species hibernate may not translate to tortoises.
Today, we’ll discuss tortoise hibernation to reveal why and how they do it and how it impacts their lifestyle.
3 Reasons Why Tortoises Hibernate
Tortoises can enter a hibernation state for several reasons, such as:
Tortoises are cold-blooded animals, like all other reptiles, so they rely on their ecosystem to regulate their core temperature. If the weather gets too cold, the animal will have difficulties regulating its internal processes.
For instance, tortoises can experience digestive problems because their metabolism drops drastically along with the temperatures.
This can lead to constipation, impaction, and low appetite, which can translate to nutritional deficiencies over time.
The hibernation process allows the tortoise to circumvent this problem by simply entering a dormant state and lowering their metabolic rates dramatically.
Tortoises slow their metabolic rate during the hibernation process by lowering their heart rate and body temperature. This state is known as brumation and is similar to what some mammals do in similar conditions.
The timespan and length of the hibernation process depend on the species and the ecosystem it’s living in.
Some tortoises enter brumation during the cold season, which can last for several months. Others may only hibernate for several weeks, depending on the case.
The hibernation state allows the tortoise to conserve energy in a low-food environment by slowing its metabolism dramatically.
Difficulty Finding Food
Many tortoises enter hibernation when experiencing difficulties finding food. This typically coincides with the installation of the cold season, but not always.
Fortunately, tortoises have a diverse diet, so they’re unlikely to starve due to the large palette of foods they accept. While their primary diet is herbivorous, they don’t hesitate to consume some animal protein if nothing else is available.
Not even carrion is off the menu in cases of extreme emergency.
However, the situation can change dramatically at times, forcing the tortoise to resort to more drastic measures. If the animal cannot find enough food to sustain itself, it may choose hibernation.
The slower metabolic rate, paired with the tortoise’s low-to-non-existent activity levels, reduces the body’s need for sustenance dramatically.
This allows tortoises to survive even in the harshest environments.
Preparation for Hibernation
Tortoises typically undergo 4 distinct preparation phases before entering hibernation.
- Building up fat reserves – While the tortoise’s metabolism drops dramatically during the hibernation phase, it doesn’t shut down completely. So, the tortoise still consumes nutrients during the process, but not as many and not at the same rate. This means that the reptile must build up its fat reserves before hibernation begins to ensure the appropriate nutrient deposits. Tortoises typically have a given hibernation schedule every year, depending on their habitat and their physiological programming. So, they need when they need to begin hibernation and when to start eating more to build their nutrient reserves.
- Finding the right spot – Finding the right hibernation spot is the critical next phase. The tortoise will be vulnerable during hibernation because it can no longer protect itself from predators. The hibernation spot of choice should do 2 things right: ensure the animal’s safety and provide stable temperatures and insulation. Burrows are the go-to spots in the wild or any other location that’s similar in terms of protection and insulation. In captivity, tortoises need a specific area that mimics their natural hibernation spot. The only reason for that is the extra comfort and peace of mind.
- Reduce activity levels – The tortoise’s system gets ready for the hibernation journey and begins, forcing the reptile to lower its activity level. This occurs once the tortoise has consumed sufficient food to ensure its survival during the cold season. Due to the lower activity level, the tortoise will only exit its burrow sporadically and move at a calmer pace. Soon, it won’t come out at all.
- Reduce core temperature – The tortoise will intentionally drop its heart rate, which will diminish its metabolism and core temperature. The animal’s temperature will soon match that of its burrow and remain at those values throughout the entire cold season.
It’s important to note that tortoises exhibit the same behaviors in captivity when preparing for hibernation. That is if you have a hibernating tortoise, to begin with.
The Process of Tortoise Hibernation
We have already explained the hibernation process in detail, but how long does it actually last? This typically depends on the species, ecosystem specifics, available sustenance, and several other factors.
To exemplify, the Mediterranean tortoise hibernates for approximately 1 to 3 months, the Russian tortoise hibernates for about the same timespan, and Hermann’s tortoise can reach 2 to 3 months.
Some species only hibernate for several weeks, but they can sometimes hibernate for longer, depending on the environmental conditions. However, they cannot hibernate indefinitely, as their resources are limited.
They also cannot hibernate past their physiological limitations, which vary from one species to another.
So, what happens if the tortoise is forced by its environment to prolong its hibernation state for too long? Let’s find out!
Risks of Long-Term Hibernation for Tortoises
Long-term hibernation comes with multiple risks in reptiles, which also apply to tortoises.
- Dehydration – This is the most immediate threat to consider because tortoises don’t drink water during the hibernation phase. So, how do you avoid that, given that you cannot provide them with drinking water? The answer: by ensuring proper environmental humidity. You should keep the tortoise’s humidity levels between 50 and 60% at all times. The reptile will absorb water through its skin, which isn’t enough to hydrate the tortoise during its awakened state. But it is enough to hydrate it during brumation.
- Nutritional deficiency – Tortoises only have limited resources during the brumation phase. Their bodies will consume them automatically during this time, but at a slower rate due to the slower metabolism. However, they will wear off eventually, in which case the tortoise should be ready to exit brumation. If that doesn’t happen, the body may begin to starve, subjecting the tortoise to the risk of nutritional deficiencies.
- Immune system suppression – The tortoise’s metabolism is slowed down dramatically during the brumation period. This means that the tortoise also has a lower immune system, which leaves it vulnerable to infections, especially respiratory ones. The longer the brumation period lasts, the higher the risk.
So, you should always monitor your tortoise’s brumation behavior to learn its physiology and natural tendencies.
And since we’ve reached this point, how exactly do you stop your tortoise’s brumation? Believe it or not, you must be careful about it.
Complications from Interrupting Tortoise Hibernation
Learning how long your tortoise’s brumation phase should last is as important as knowing the parameters necessary during the phase.
That’s because interrupting your pet’s hibernation phase before it runs its natural course can have devastating consequences.
- Metabolic imbalances – The problem is as follows. You can interrupt your tortoise’s hibernation, and the animal can resume it after a while naturally. But the effects of your actions remain. As the reptile wakes up, the body recognizes this as the end of the hibernation phase. So, the reptile’s metabolism will return to normal. The problem is that the tortoise continues to hibernate, except now its body has an accelerated metabolism that consumes its nutrient reserves at a more accelerated rate. This subjects the reptile to the risk of starvation and dehydration.
- Increased risk of disease – Interrupting the hibernation phase can destroy the animal’s immune system. The tortoise will become more prone to infections and other health issues.
- Stress – Stress is almost guaranteed in these cases. The stress resulting from interrupting the tortoise’s hibernation can impact its immune system and overall well-being, leaving the reptile vulnerable to an array of health issues.
- Difficulty returning to brumation – Once awakened, the tortoise may have difficulties returning to its hibernating state. This comes with a variety of health risks, including metabolic instability and an ineffective immune system. Hibernating tortoises need to hibernate to regulate their metabolism, so they cannot skip this phase. They also cannot cut it short without experiencing a variety of health problems.
So, if you’ve invested in a hibernating tortoise, learn the animal’s hibernation behavior and ensure the proper conditions for it to complete the process smoothly.
How to Help a Tortoise End Hibernation?
In the wild, it’s Mother Nature who instructs the tortoise’s body when the time has come to end the hibernation phase.
The tortoise’s body will simply react to the changes in temperature and humidity in its ecosystem and wake up slowly from its month-long sleep.
The situation is entirely different in captivity because you’re the one playing the role of Mother Nature this time.
So, how do you help your tortoise end its hibernation cycle safely? Here are some tips:
- Gradual temperature increase – By gradual, I mean a ‘slow increase over the course of several days.’ Don’t increase the temperature abruptly, as this can imbalance the tortoise’s system, and we’ve already detailed the downfalls in that scenario. An increase of 0.5-1.5 F daily should set a healthy pace, allowing your tortoise to wake up from its dormant state gradually.
- Gradual lighting increase – The same applies to the lighting level. Go for a gradual increase over the course of several days to stimulate the tortoise’s brain gently.
- Ensure sufficient water and food – The tortoise won’t begin to eat immediately after waking up because its metabolism is still adapting to the waking state. Don’t worry, it will begin to eat and drink soon, though, provided everything checks out.
- Monitor its health and behavior – You should always monitor your tortoise’s health parameters immediately after it’s awake. You want to make sure everything’s fine and that the hibernation phase has been completed successfully.
As a side note: only mature and healthy tortoises should undergo brumation. If your tortoise is experiencing any health issues, it may not be fit for undergoing hibernation.
Also, stop feeding your tortoise approximately 2 weeks before the hibernation phase. You don’t want your tortoise to enter hibernation with a full belly.
The digestive system will essentially stop working during hibernation, which means that the food already in the belly might rot and cause life-threatening problems.
Hibernation is a critical and sensitive period of your tortoise’s life.
Consider my tips, learn as much as you can about your pet’s hibernation behavior, and speak to a tortoise professional or vet about it.
You can never take too many precautions.