Where do the Turtles go in the Winter?

turtle pond in winter at The Crest at Willow-Witt Ranch

The turtle pond, at 5,000 feet elevation, covered with a sheet of ice. Photo by Michael Parker, Interim Chair of Biology at SOU.

With the solstice behind us and a blanketing of fresh snow on the ground, we pass into winter and begin to dream of longer days and the coming of spring. At nearly 5,000 feet in elevation, the march of the seasons presents diverse challenges and opportunities for the plants and animals with whom we share this special place that is the Willow-Witt Ranch. One animal, the western pond turtle (namesake, and mascot of the now famous Turtle Trot), is a particularly interesting resident of the area, inhabiting the pond at the top of the wetland meadow.

Michael Parker demonstrating how to measure a Western Pond Turtle’s age. Michael Parker has recorded over 80 Western Pond Turtles in the turtle pond at Willow-Witt Ranch.

The western pond turtle (the only native turtle in our region) is widely distributed along the west coast of North America, primarily west of the crest of the Cascades and Sierra-Nevada mountain ranges. In Oregon, western pond turtles most commonly occur below about 3,000 feet elevation and inhabit a variety of habitats from streams and rivers to wetland ponds, lakes, and reservoirs. What makes the turtle population at Willow-Witt particularly interesting is that it represents one of the highest elevation breeding populations of this species in the region. Since 2015 we have been studying this population to gain insights that may help us understand how turtles will adapt to a warming climate. To date, we have captured, weighed, measured, and given individual identifying marks (and names!) to almost all the turtles in the pond. Most folks are surprised to learn that over 100 turtles call the pond home. 

turtle pond in fall at The Crest at Willow-Witt Ranch

Western Pond Turtles basking in the sun. As cold-blooded reptiles, turtles bask to regulate their body temperature and to absorb UVB in order to stay healthy. 

Most Willow-Witt visitors encounter the resident pond turtles during the spring and summer when they are highly visible basking in the sun. But what about this time of year? What do the turtles do and where do they go during winter? In many lower elevation populations, particularly those inhabiting streams and rivers, turtles leave the aquatic environment to over-winter on dry land.  They do not dig burrows, or bury themselves, they simply settle down onto the surface of the ground, pull in their head and legs, and wait for spring. But what do they do at 4,800 feet when the ground is covered with snow for several weeks? We answered that question last winter by following a group of 6 turtles (3 female; 3 male) on whose carapace (upper shell) we had attached radio transmitters. What we discovered is that the turtles spend the entire winter in the pond. A vision of turtles buried in the mud, unmoving for weeks, is probably what is going through most reader’s minds at this point. But what we observed is that, although less active than during the warmer months, the turtles actually moved around quite a bit within the pond throughout the winter, even when the pond is partially frozen.  We also found that as early as mid-February, when days are getting noticeably longer, turtles may emerge to bask for short periods. By March, on most sunny spring afternoons turtles can once again be observed moving about, warming themselves in the sun.

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658 Shale City Road
Ashland OR 97520

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