We’ve gotten a few questions lately about where all of our frogs, toads, and turtles go for the winter. While you can’t see them at the garden now, they’re still here!
Turtles, like our painted turtles and the baby snapping turtles that hatched this fall, go dormant over the winter. Since they are cold-blooded reptiles, their body temperature drops to match the temperature of their environment, and their metabolism and activity levels slow way down. They hunker down in the mud at the bottom of the pond, where the temperature is consistent, until the water warms and spring arrives. Turtles are able to survive underwater like this for months because they can absorb oxygen through their skin.
Toads spend the winter on land, but they must go underground to survive the cold. Toads are strong and have special adaptations on their feet to help them dig. They can dig deep down into the ground below the frost line, keeping them warm and safe throughout winter.
Some frogs do spend winter at the bottom of ponds, like turtles, but some use a more unique strategy. Frogs aren’t able to dig deep like toads, so they find cracks and crevices to hide in aboveground. These places aren’t as protected from the cold, so frogs can produce their own “antifreeze” that keeps them alive. Frogs look nearly dead at this time, and their heart even stops beating! Check out this cool video to see how it works.
Unfortunately, these animals’ winter survival strategies do make them highly susceptible to climate change. If the weather is too harsh, like during 2018’s polar vortex, reptiles and amphibians may not have enough protection to survive the bitterly cold temperatures. On the other hand, a warm spell in the middle of the winter can trick animals into thinking it’s already spring. Their bodies start to undo all the changes that took place to prepare for winter, leaving them unprotected when it does get cold again.