Hibernating without Oxygen: Physiological Adaptations of the Painted Turtle


  • Donald C. Jackson

    Corresponding author
    1. Department of Molecular Pharmacology, Physiology and Biotechnology, Brown University, Providence, RI 02912, USA
    • Corresponding author D. C. Jackson: Department of Molecular Pharmacology, Physiology and Biotechnology, Brown University, 171 Meeting Street, Box G-B328, Providence, RI 02912, USA. Email: donald_jackson@brown.edu

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Many freshwater turtles in temperate climates may experience winter periods trapped under ice unable to breathe, in anoxic mud, or in water depleted of O2. To survive, these animals must not only retain function while anoxic, but they must do so for extended periods of time. Two general physiological adaptive responses appear to underlie this capacity for long-term survival. The first is a coordinated depression of metabolic processes within the cells, both the glycolytic pathway that produces ATP and the cellular processes, such as ion pumping, that consume ATP. As a result, both the rate of substrate depletion and the rate of lactic acid production are slowed greatly. The second is an exploitation of the extensive buffering capacity of the turtle's shell and skeleton to neutralize the large amount of lactic acid that eventually accumulates. Two separate shell mechanisms are involved: release of carbonate buffers from the shell and uptake of lactic acid into the shell where it is buffered and sequestered. Together, the metabolic and buffering mechanisms permit animals to survive for 3–4 months at 3 °C with no O2 and with circulating lactate levels of 150 mmol l−1 or more.