You probably already know that snakes are cold-blooded animals, which in generic terms, means that they cannot self-regulate their body temperature. They rely on their environment for that.
So, the next question is fairly obvious: what do snakes do in the winter? After all, these animals need sunlight and warmth to remain healthy and prevent hypothermia.
Fortunately, that’s exactly what we will be discussing today. In short, we will dive into one of the snakes’ amazing evolutionary adaptations: the capability to brumate.
Snake Brumation in Winter
In a few words, brumation is another word for hibernation. However, the 2 notions are not identical, as there are some critical differences between them.
Unlike true hibernation, where the animal becomes completely unconscious during the winter, brumation is only partial. The animal is still conscious and can even drink water or exhibit low activity throughout the process.
But how are snakes capable of brumation, given the understanding we have about their physiological functioning?
To understand snake brumation better, consider the following sections:
Snake Brumation Physiology and Behavior
Snakes can sense when the time has come for hibernation. That’s usually when environmental temperatures drop below the 60 F mark, which applies to most snake species.
When that happens, the snake’s physiological functioning changes gradually, allowing for significant modifications in the snake’s overall system.
But, before that, the snake undergoes the preparation phase, which includes eating more protein and fat in the weeks before the cold season begins.
The goal is to create additional fat reserves to last the reptile for the entire cold season. With that complete, the snake will then decrease its metabolic rate by controlling the heart rate and respiration. The body will soon enter a semi-dormant state, only consuming sufficient energy to keep the animal alive, nothing more.
This allows the snake to refrain from eating for months throughout the cold season, only surviving on the nutrient deposits.
Common Snake Species that Hibernate
Several snake species can brumate, including rattlesnakes, corn snakes, gopher snakes, milksnakes, and kingsnakes, to name a few.
These reptiles have similar brumation requirements and behaviors, but the brumation period may differ for each, depending on the species and geographical location.
Hibernaculum Selection and Preparation
Snakes know ahead of time when the brumation period is about to set in. Part of their detection mechanism is the ability to sense small temperature variations, which are cumulative over days and weeks.
When that happens, snakes undergo several preparatory phases:
- Selecting the hibernaculum – The notion of hibernaculum describes the specific dwelling spot that the snakes will select for their brumation purposes. In most cases, the hibernaculum is nothing more than a burrow in the ground, most likely belonging to a different animal species. The burrow is obviously deserted, so the snake can use it to its heart’s content. Other snake species hide in the foliage or hibernate in trees at respectable heights. Snakes always look for hidden areas to brumate because they are inactive and vulnerable during the process. Once the snake has selected the hibernaculum, it will then clean the debris and make it more comfortable.
- Eating phase – Snakes tend to boost their eating routine several weeks before the brumation period sets in. This is to accumulate fat, especially in the tail area, so that they can survive the long, month-long fasting period to ensue shortly.
- Starvation phase – This is an interesting behavior that all snakes will exhibit when close to brumation. The reptiles will stop eating approximately 2 weeks to brumation. This is to allow the digestive system to empty the bowels completely so that there’s no food left in the digestive system when brumation sets in. The reasoning is simple: once the snake’s metabolism drops, the digestive system will no longer function. So, any food still present in the stomach will rot and impact the snake’s health.
With the preparation phase over, the snake is now ready to begin the brumation phase.
Length of Brumation and Leaving Hibernaculum
The length of the brumation process varies based on geographical location. Some snakes can brumate for months, while others may only do it for several weeks.
The snake can sense the differences in temperature and humidity in the air and adjust their physiological functioning accordingly.
As a general rule, if environmental temperatures increase gradually above 60 F, the snake will begin to exit brumation. The process is gradual and adjusts to the climate change.
If you have snake pets that can brumate, you should provide them with special brumating conditions that mimic the snake’s natural conditions.
Gradual temperature increases and decreases (0.5-1 °F per day) are necessary to prevent temperature shock and provide the snake with a smooth physiological transition.
Human Interaction with Snakes in Winter
Human interactions are even more damaging toward snakes during the winter season than they are in the rest of the year.
That’s because snakes are semi-dormant, so they cannot protect themselves in case of direct habitat destruction. On another note, human-snake interactions are less likely during the cold season.
In this sense, we should consider 2 critical points:
- Human activities that affect snakes in winter – A variety of activities fall into this category, including agricultural activities, pollution, deforestation, land development, etc. All these activities impact snakes more severely during the cold season when they are inactive and incapable of protecting themselves or avoiding direct danger.
- The importance of respecting snakes in winter – Respecting snakes and their hibernation phase during wintertime is critical for the population’s health and stability. This implies learning the snakes’ natural habitat boundaries and educating people on their importance for the ecosystem’s stability.
Pet Snake Brumation
Brumation is a natural process that’s deeply inscribed in the snake’s physiological functioning. If you own a snake that tends to brumate in the wild, you need to provide the animal with the right brumating conditions in captivity as well.
- Control the temperature – Snakes brumate when the temperature is right, typically below 50 or 60 °F, depending on the species. So, your priority should be to lower the environmental temperatures gradually to mimic a natural transition. The snake will sense the gradual drop in temperature and begin to prepare for brumation.
- Control the lighting – You should shorten the light hours to mimic a decreasing daytime. This is consistent with the natural cold season and allows the snake to adjust its physiological clock accordingly.
- Watch your snake’s feeding pattern – Snakes tend to eat more approximately one month before shedding but will stop eating 2-3 weeks ahead of time. You will notice that your snake’s appetite will slowly decrease along with the changes in temperature. So, you should stop feeding your reptile at least 1-2 weeks before the brumation sets in.
- Provide an adequate hibernaculum – Snakes always look for a secure and dark place to hibernate. Consider adding a hibernation box in your snake’s enclosure. If the snake already has a personalized hiding room, that’s all it needs.
- Clean the enclosure beforehand – Replace the substrate, change the water in the water bowl, and clean and sterilize the entire habitat. You want to eliminate all traces of fungi or bacteria that could impact the snake’s health during the weeks or months of brumation.
- Ensure peace and quiet – You shouldn’t disturb your snake during the brumation journey. Any interaction with the snake during this time can stress out the reptile needlessly, causing health problems because of it.
When the hibernation time is about to end, increase the lighting and temperature gradually each day until they reach the values associated with the warm season.
The snake will wake from its slumber gradually and resume its normal routine soon after. Most snakes will eat soon after the brumation is over.
Snakes are incredibly adaptable animals that can even survive the cold of winter.
This has allowed these resilient reptiles to populate ecosystems that don’t seem fit for cold-blooded animals in general.
Just keep in mind that brumating reptiles are generally more difficult to keep than non-brumating ones.