How Do Turtles Survive the Winter?

6 November 2020

By now, the tamaracks have turned a bright orange and the yellow-rumped warblers have flown south. With a 5 PM sunset and snow in the forecast, the Arboretum is on the brink of winter. As snakes and frogs prepare for hibernation in rodent burrows and old stumps, turtles are preparing for a long winter beneath the ice.

Five species of turtle find a home in the Arboretum. Named for their bright orange undersides and streaks of yellow, the painted turtle (Chrysemys picta) is the most common turtle in the Arboretum. Snapping turtles (Chelydra serpentina), spiny softshells (Apalone spinifera) and other common species can also be found in Lyman Lakes and on the Cannon. All of these species survive underwater each winter through a miraculous array of adaptations.

Turtles are ectotherms, meaning their body temperature shifts to match the temperature of their surroundings. When submerged underwater, a turtle’s body temperature drops by up to ninety percent, usually settling at about 39 degrees Fahrenheit. Within hours of being submerged, a turtle’s blood-oxygen levels drop to near zero. With the same percentage of oxygen in our blood, humans would survive for three to four minutes. Painted turtles survive for three to four months.

In lieu of air, turtles rely on stored energy and “cloacal breathing” to survive the duration of winter, drawing oxygen from water as it passes over blood vessels in the skin, mouth and cloaca, or the hind end. If oxygen becomes depleted, painting and snapping turtles can switch to anaerobic respiration, which is a form of metabolism that does not require oxygen. While practical for underwater environments, anaerobic respiration can lead to a build-up of lactic acid and damage turtle tissue. To prevent damage, turtles’ skeletons and shells release carbonate buffers to neutralize lactic acid build-up. Come spring, turtles are desperate to bask in sunlight, effectively increasing their metabolic rate and ridding their body of acidic by-products.

As winter approaches Northfield, turtles are at the front end of a few daunting months of underwater survival.

A painted turtle sunning on a log by the river.
A painted turtle sunning on a log by the river. Photo by Joanne Bouknight.

Posted In


  • 2020-11-23 11:54:26
    Jimmy Zhong '23

    Sydney, thank you so much for your article. I always wonder how do turtles spend their winter break, too. But I've never thought they drown themselves for several months.

  • 2021-10-12 07:55:33
    Donna Marie Riley

    I love this article. I have written two children's books on turtles, and I am starting my third. Do you have a page to follow. I love this type of information.

  • 2021-11-14 14:59:33
    Travis Riddle

    Very cool article 👍🏼

  • 2021-11-20 11:21:40
    Joy Detrow

    I am doing a STEM Project on Turtles. So, some of this info is very good.

  • 2022-05-29 14:10:42

    I am doing nothing with turtle’s, but live adjacent to a brook in New Hampshire where we frequently see them. Thank you for this informative, scientifically based article. It answered all of our questions about how our green neighbors survive the winter.

  • 2022-10-04 08:56:20

    Fascinating! The turtles in our neighborhood have been basking in the sun in the late afternoon as the fall creeps in. So today, I asked Google "how do turtles survive the winter" and this article came up. I can't wait to share this with my son. He will be fascinated that turtles breathe through their butts (cloacal breathing) among other ways of survival. 🤭

    • 2024-02-29 18:49:05
      Brenda Davis

      I did the same today. The past 2 days have been warm and there were about 20 large turtles sunning on a log. Today they weren't there, and the temp dropped about 40°, so I wondered where they were. I did not think they would be in the bottom of the water buried in mud. Fascinating. They should be back out next week when it warms back up.

  • 2023-11-05 16:25:12
    Claire Mac

    Fascinating! Thank you for this informative article - been watching a documentary about Painted Turtles in Canada traveling to the lake to migrate over winter … but they didn’t say how she was going to breathe while hibernating! Fascinating and now I know, thank you :o)

Add a comment