Animal experts answer ‘Where do turtles go in the winter?’

By Azucena Gama, Night Editor

During the first warm and sunny spring day in March, a turtle peeps its head out to soak in the sunshine for the first time since December. A common question is: Was he in hibernation? 

According to the Illinois Department of Natural Resources, in Illinois there are 17 different species of turtles. In central Illinois, the most common types of turtles are freshwater turtles. There are also species that range in a variety of characteristics: carnivores, yellow-spotted, two inches long, a foot long or those that live 50+ years.

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Though many animals go into hibernation during the cold months, turtles do not hibernate the same way most species do. 

Instead, turtles go to the bottom of a body of nearby water and bury themselves in the mud. They stay under the mud until the weather is consistently warm again. 

Christopher Phillips, a principal herpetologist at the University, studies reptiles and amphibians. Phillips explained how turtles decide when it is the right time to resurface.

“It depends on the severity of the weather. Like right now (since) we’re having some really good weather, you would think ‘Oh man it’s in the 70s, the turtles are gonna come up!’ but they know better than that,” Phillips said. 

Phillips also said that the region the turtles live in is a deciding factor for when they will come out of the water.

“Illinois is a long state, north to south, so it varies from north near the Wisconsin border down to the south. Near here (the south) they’re gonna come out a little earlier,” Phillips said.  

Similar to turtles, snakes also hibernate below ground. However, snakes hibernate for a different reason than turtles. When they go below the frost line — where the underground water freezes — snakes burrow themselves to conserve their energy. 

Turtles do not hibernate. Instead, they slow their body processes down without sleeping.

“All snakes whether they are semi-aquatic or terrestrial, have to hibernate down in the ground below the frost line,” Phillips said. “And depending on where you are in Illinois, the frost line in Chicago can be 16 inches. Down in southern Illinois, we don’t even have a frost line.” 

Another factor in a turtle’s seasonal cycle is the quality of the water they bury themselves under. Turtles also factor in human actions that affect their habitats. According to Alexander Rocha, freshman in ACES, pollution has affected reptiles and amphibians greatly, and the consequences could worsen. 

“Amphibians live on both land and water, right now because of the increased water pollution and stuff they’re going through kind of a hard time, especially with the increasing and decreasing temperature,” Rocha said. “This climate change in general is kind of putting them as an entire category at risk in general, and not a lot of people care as much because they’re all gross and slimy.”

Rocha also said that the best way to support reptiles and amphibians is to maintain the water quality. It is especially important to protect the water in areas that are rich with different types of animal species. 

Rocha also said that maintaining the water quality can be done by preventing polluting the water with sewage, chemicals or fertilizer runoff. 

“They’re a lot more sensitive to changes in pH and such, they absorb a lot of oxygen and nutrients through their skin. Something like that has a changeable effect,” Rocha said.


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