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Image: One of many painted turtles, sunning itself on a rock.

Taking Hints From Frozen Turtles: Deep Rest Is the Key to Living

When was the last time you skipped lunch to get just one more thing done? Or found yourself bemoaning your alarm clock after staying up too late scrolling your phone? Many of us have fallen out of touch with the rhythms of rest our bodies need, but today, we’re taking a closer look at a famously slow species that takes shutting down to an entirely new level. And furthermore, what their adaptations can teach us about thriving under impossible conditions. 

There are a lot of animals in the wild that choose to flip the “off switch” completely during the winter months and choose rest above all else. Some bears, for example, stock up on food until their bellies are full and sleep in their den for up to 8 months 1! Even queen bumble bees stay tucked underground until spring 2. But one animal in particular has adapted to survive the harsh winters in a way that we can all learn from. I’m talking about the world’s most northerly turtle, the painted turtle.

Image: One of many painted turtles, sunning itself on a rock.
Source: Wikimedia Commons

Painted turtles have a healthy population and can often be spotted in quiet bodies of muddy water throughout the United States and Canada. They enjoy a relaxed life of feeding on underwater prey like insects and crayfish and hiding out under vegetation. But while it’s common to see their dark shells and colorfully “painted” little bodies perched on a log in practically any bog, it’s their strange ability to survive the long North American winters that is truly uncommon. 3

Painted turtles begin their lives by hatching in shallow, muddy nests during Autumn. Not long after entering the world, they are exposed to freezing temperatures so cold that their bodies literally freeze inside their nests! Ice forms from the outside in, gradually cutting off blood circulation and stopping their heartbeat. 4 But not to fear, these baby turtles have a 2-part superpower…

Part 1 of a Painted Turtle’s Superpower:

Painted turtles can survive freezing because they are able to control the formation of ice in their bodies. Dropping temperatures cue the turtle’s liver to produce special proteins that cause very small ice crystals to form in their bodily fluids. Because their bodies keep the ice crystals very small, it doesn’t cause damage to the turtle’s muscle tissues. 5

But no matter how small they are, ice crystals cause damage if allowed to form inside cells. So another handy adaptation allows painted turtles to protect their cells from ice damage! Sugar compounds called cryoprotectants protect the cells and prevent the water inside from freezing, much like the antifreeze in your car’s radiator. 6

So the painted turtle waits, frozen in time, not breathing, its brain only slightly active. That is, until Spring, when part of 2 of their superpower kicks in. 

Part 2 of a Painted Turtle’s Superpower:

Timing. You’ve heard it said before, timing is everything. This is true for our friends, the frozen painted turtle hatchlings, too. As spring arrives and things begin to thaw, so do the turtles! They seem to know right when to wake up, just as the first ice starts to melt. And it is now, that they will embark on the world with freshly thawed eyes, to get their head start back to the water.

Want to witness the thawing process up close? This short but mesmerizing video by BBC Earth gives us an other-worldly look at some painted turtle babies coming back to life after a long winter’s rest. 

Via: BBC Earth 7

Wasn’t that incredible? BBC Earth has a remarkable collection of educational wildlife videos to get lost in. Explore more of their content on their YouTube channel.

Could deep rest be the thing we’re missing?

Watching these turtles blossom back to life after a deep freeze has me getting curious about how humans live, versus the painted turtle. I feel like these turtles are onto something, something that many people struggle with: giving in to rest. What if we allowed our bodies to tell us when to wake up and take the leap? What if we worked with the natural rhythms of the day, the month, or our lifetime

The start to a new year is a complicated time for many. A lot of folks wake up on January 1st with renewed enthusiasm for what lies ahead, while others may find themselves overwhelmed by the pressures of “new year, new me”. In truth, most people probably land somewhere in between. 

I guess what I’m saying is that you are not alone if you discover that you’re yearning for a moment of quiet, rest, and reflection after all the holiday hoopla. And, it’s always a good idea to listen to your body. It knows when the time is right to take on the world, and it also knows when it’s time to slow down and rest.

Perhaps the best new year’s resolution we can make for ourselves is to simply tap into our own natural instincts, prioritize the rest we need, and be at ease with the understanding that all things take time. Channel your inner painted turtle, because there are endless possibilities inside each of us, just waiting for the right moment to thaw out.

Keep dreaming, and notice the beauty around you!

~Renee

If you’re like me and you struggle with slowing down, give one of these articles a gander next:

Sleep is Your Superpower!

How did you sleep last night? Sleep can be our number one defense to keeping us healthy, so, what can we do to turn on this superpower and finally get motivated to get to bed!

Read Article Watch Video Listen to Podcast
Four Questions To Ask Yourself Before Taking on a New Project

Do you struggle with saying “no” to new things? Do you feel like saying “no” is letting people down? Have you overextended yourself by taking too much on? Maybe it’s time for some self-compassion. Here are the four critical questions to ask yourself before you take on a new project.

Read Article Watch Video Listen to Podcast
Life Advice from the Slowest Mammal on Earth!

What can sloths teach us about dealing with the chaos of modern life? Here’s a hilarious TED Talk that will have you becoming a champion of the sloth lifestyle for yourself.

Read Article Watch Video Listen to Podcast

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Notes:

  1. “Learning.” Home, https://www.ncwildlife.org/Learning/Species/Mammals/Black-Bear/Black-Bear-Hibernation.
  2. Burlew, Rusty. “Bumble Bees Hibernate, Honey Bees Do Not.” Honey Bee Suite, 27 Sept. 2022, https://www.honeybeesuite.com/bumble-bees-hibernate-honey-bees-do-not/#:~:text=Queen%20bumble%20bees%20hibernate%20underground&text=This%20is%20usually%20just%20a,rest%20of%20the%20colony%20dies.
  3. Wildlife Fact Sheets. https://portal.ct.gov/DEEP/Wildlife/Learn-About-Wildlife/Wildlife-Fact-Sheets.
  4. Wildlife Fact Sheets. https://portal.ct.gov/DEEP/Wildlife/Learn-About-Wildlife/Wildlife-Fact-Sheets.
  5. Despres, Renée. “Painted Turtles Have a Natural Antifreeze.” A Moment of Science – Indiana Public Media, https://indianapublicmedia.org/amomentofscience/painted-turtles-natural-antifreeze.php.
  6. Despres, Renée. “Painted Turtles Have a Natural Antifreeze.” A Moment of Science – Indiana Public Media, https://indianapublicmedia.org/amomentofscience/painted-turtles-natural-antifreeze.php.
  7. “Painted Turtles Defrost Back to Life: Frozen Planet II: BBC Earth.” YouTube, 10 Oct. 2022, https://youtu.be/NwGHJTk3W3U.
Published: January 16, 2023

Image: Renee Laroche-Rheaume

Renee Laroche-Rheaume

Outreach Coordinator & Writer

Renee is a graduate of FIDM, and has held jobs in several industries such as apparel manufacturing, retail, professional office work, and even hospitality. Her creative outlook, wide variety of experiences, and desire to notice the beauty around us make her a great addition to the Goodness Exchange team.

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