Turtles are a small taxon that has nevertheless attracted much attention from biologists for centuries. However, a major portion of their life cycle has received relatively little attention until recently – namely what turtles are doing, and how they are doing it, during the winter. In the northern parts of their ranges in North America, turtles may spend more than half of their lives in an overwintering state. In this review, I emphasise the ecological aspects of overwintering among turtles, and consider how overwintering stresses affect the physiology, behaviour, distributions, and life histories of various species.
Sea turtles are the only group of turtles that migrate extensively, and can therefore avoid northern winters. Nevertheless, each year a number of turtles, largely juveniles, are killed when trapped by cold fronts before they move to safer waters. Evidently this risk is an acceptable trade-off for the benefits to a population of inhabiting northern developmental habitats during the summer.
Terrestrial turtles pass the winter underground, either in burrows that they excavate or that are preformed. These refugia must provide protection against desiccation and lethal freezing levels. Some burrows are extensive (tortoise genus Gopherus), while others are shallow, or the turtles may simply dig into the ground to a safe depth (turtle genus Terrapene). In the latter genus, freeze tolerance may play an adaptive role.
Most non-marine aquatic turtles overwinter underwater, although Clemmys (Actinemys) marmorata routinely overwinters on land when it occurs in riverine habitats, Kinosternon subrubrum often overwinters on land, and several others may overwinter terrestrially on occasion, especially in more southern climates. For northern species that overwinter underwater, there are two physiological groupings, those that are anoxia-tolerant and those that are relatively anoxia-intolerant. All species fare well physiologically in water with a high partial pressure of oxygen (PO2). A lack of anoxia tolerance limits the types of habitats that a freshwater turtle may live in, since unlike sea turtles, they cannot travel long distances to hibernate.
Hatchlings of some species of turtles spend their first winter in or below the nest cavity, while hatchlings of other species in the same area, including northern areas, emerge in the autumn and presumably hibernate underwater. All hatchlings are relatively anoxia-intolerant, and there are no studies to date of where hatchling turtles that do not overwinter in or below the nest cavity spend their first winter. Equally little is known of the ontogeny of anoxia tolerance, other than that adults of all species are more anoxia-tolerant than their hatchlings, probably because of their better ossified shells, which provide adults with more buffer reserves and a larger site in which to sequester lactate. The northern limits of turtles are most likely determined by reproductive limitations (time for egg-laying, incubation, and hatching) than by the rigors of hibernation.
Mortality is typically lower in turtle populations during hibernation than it is during their active periods. However, episodic mortality events do occur during hibernation, due to freezing, prolonged anoxia, or predation.