Land and aquatic turtles are popular pet reptiles, but their behaviors can be mysterious. Sleep is one of these mysterious behaviors since it's hard to tell when a turtle may be awake if they aren't walking around or eating. Sleep patterns and ideal environments for sleep vary from species to species but regardless of what kind of turtle you care for, they all rest at some point. Knowing how a turtle normally sleeps can help you recognize the signs that something may be wrong with your turtle if these sleep patterns change.
Both land turtles and aquatic turtles sleep, but it can be hard to tell when they are resting. Some research on the state of sleep in turtles has been done but it varies in species and results so there is still a lot we don't know about sleep in turtles. What we do know though, is that turtles do rest but the difference between their wake and sleep states may not be as dramatic as it is in other animals and people.
Pet turtles usually sleep throughout the day in short spurts but they may also sleep for several hours at a time. Aquatic turtles may spend hours sleeping on a dry dock or with their head poking out of the water but they may also sleep underwater for shorter periods of time, coming up to take a breath when necessary. Land turtles don't swim like aquatic turtles so they can sleep anytime, anywhere.
Turtle Sleeping Environments
Many environmental factors can alter your turtle's sleep patterns. If your turtle's environment is not ideal, your turtle may sleep more or less often than it should, and it could even develop an illness. Ensuring these following factors are appropriate for your specific type of turtle can help encourage a normal sleep cycle.
Both land and aquatic turtles are more likely to have consistent sleep patterns if they have a regular white light cycle. It's important to note that a white light bulb is different than light bulbs that emit red or purple light that reptiles cannot see. Most turtles, including painted turtles, red-eared sliders, cooters, common box turtles, and map turtles, are diurnal so they are more active during the day and they sleep more at night. The regular light cycle is important because they spend their waking hours basking in the sun so if your turtle doesn't have consistent lighting, its sleep cycle may be abnormal.
Shelters and Platforms
While different turtles have different preferences in how and where they like to sleep, you should always provide a land turtle with a shelter and an aquatic turtle with a platform. Land turtles need a place to hide and aquatic turtles need a dock to dry off on. These hides and docks often become the preferred places for sleeping. Plastic containers with an opening cut out, a half log, pile of rocks to form a cave, and store bought shelters designed for pet reptiles can all be used for land turtles. Homemade floating docks made with PVC tubing, rock piles, and store bought floating turtle platforms are ideal options for aquatic turtles to rest on. Regardless of whether your turtle lives on land or in the water, make sure it can easily fit in or on the shelter or platform you provide.
In addition to the white light, the temperature of your turtle's environment may be the biggest factor in your turtle's sleep pattern. Turtles are ectothermic or cold-blooded, so they rely on the ambient temperature to regulate their body temperature. If their environment is too cold for too long, they may sleep more. Different species of turtles have different ideal temperatures so be sure your turtle's environment isn't too cold.
Sleep vs. Brumation
Brumation is a form of hibernation that occurs in reptiles. Turtles that are kept in a controlled, warm environment year-round can still go into brumation but consistency of their environment will decrease the likelihood of it occurring. Brumation is similar to sleeping, but in brumation, the body temperature, heart rate, and respiratory rate drops for an extended period of time. Turtles in brumation may not wake for days at a time.
Is there REM sleep in reptiles? A key question, but still unanswered. Current Opinion in Physiology. 2020;15:134-142.