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Do Snakes Hibernate—or Brumate?

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snakes hibernate brumate
Photo by Joshua J Cotten on Unsplash

Have you noticed that snakes are not so commonly seen in the winter? Have you ever thought about why it is so? You must have heard about this phenomenon called hibernation, where some types of animals sleep during the winter. But what about snakes—is this applicable to them too? What do snakes do in the winter? Do snakes hibernate?

Yes, snakes hibernate; however, their type of hibernation is called brumation. A snake’s brumation is a little different from the way other warm-blooded animals hibernate in the winter. Don’t worry, in this article, we will explain everything about this peculiar behavior of snakes in the winter.

Do Snakes Hibernate?

The answer is yes, snakes do hibernate. But it is not the exact word that qualifies what they do in the winter. Instead, they brumate. There are some key differences and similarities between brumation and hibernation, which we will explain.

Brumation: A state of partial sleep or dormancy.

Snakes brumate because they need to conserve energy in order to carry out essential activities in the winter months, especially breeding.

Hibernation: A general term that refers to any form of winter dormancy; however, this term is usually used to describe animals like bats and bears that exhibit total dormancy during the winter period.

During hibernation, animals feed more during the summer and fall preceding the winter. They do this so that they can store extra fat and nutrients on their bodies to use as nourishment during hibernation in the winter.

Consequently, these animals sleep through the winter; they don’t take breaks to look for extra food or water.

How Do Snakes Prepare for Brumation?

Before brumation, snakes don’t have to eat more to store fat or nutrients for the coming winter; instead, they feed less. They store glycogen in their systems rather than fat. Glycogen helps to keep the snake’s body in good shape until the winter months are over.

Why Do Snakes Eat Less Before Brumation?

Snakes are ectothermic, which means that they are not able to maintain their body temperature themselves. They rely on external temperatures.

Snakes are very sensitive to the temperature of their environment. Once they notice that the temperature is dropping, they begin to eat less. Eating less helps them quickly digest their food; additionally, their rate of metabolism is higher during warmer periods and lower during colder periods.

If they eat too much food during the winter, they wouldn’t be able to digest it properly, and this may cause harm to them.

Major Difference Between Hibernation and Brumation

The major difference between hibernation and brumation is the rate of activity. Brumation does not involve total sleep during the winter. You can still see snakes coming out in the winter when the temperature increases a little bit. However, they won’t be very agile, and you might notice their slower, sluggish movement. This is because their rate of metabolism has drastically reduced.

However, for animals that hibernate, you won’t see them outside their dens. They stay in hibernation till the winter season is over.

When Do Snakes Go Into Brumation?

Snakes go into brumation when they feel that the weather is no longer conducive for normal metabolic activity. They’re naturally able to detect when they should go into brumation and it varies slightly across different snake species. For example, the tiger rattlesnake is known to start brumation from mid-October to early December, while the larger western diamondback rattlesnake usually starts brumation around late November. However, there is a possibility that climate change may affect brumation behaviors among snake species.

Where Do Snakes Go in the Winter To Brumate?

You don’t really see snakes in the winter, so where are they? During brumation snakes go to places called dens or hibernaculum.

A den has smaller and narrower openings where the snake can only navigate; however, a hibernaculum is just any place that is able to support them through the winter.

To be able to provide support, the hibernaculum is usually warmer than the outside cold temperature. It also provides concealment for them so that they are not disturbed by other larger animals.

Most snakes brumate in underground burrows and smaller snake species usually burrow deeper than larger snakes. Other places where snakes can burrow include tree hollows, tree logs, tree root systems, sinkholes, beneath piles of mulch or wood piles, stacks of blocks, basements and sheds, under rock formations, in crevices between walls and in building foundations under construction.

Anywhere they find convenient becomes a hibernaculum for them. However, some species of snakes move to specific areas for brumation. The timber rattlesnake is a typical example. This snake goes back to their place of birth to brumate during the winter.

Do Snakes Brumate Together?

snakes hibernate brumate

Some species of snake brumate alone, while others brumate together.

The eastern hognose, the Massasauga rattlesnake and the tiger rattlesnake are snake species known to brumate alone. Garter snakes, on the other hand, are known to brumate in very large groups; there could be as many as 20,000 garter snakes brumating in the same place. This behavior is known as communal brumation. Some species have been found to brumate with other snake species. For example, communal brumation has been observed between black racers and rattlesnakes.

Scientists believe that communal brumation helps snakes live longer and reproduce better.

Do All Snakes Brumate?

No, not all species of snakes brumate. Climatic conditions are a big determinant. Snakes go into brumation in unfavorable environmental conditions, usually winter, so snake species living in hot climates don’t necessarily have to brumate.

However, some species of snakes may brumate (experience periods of lower activity) in other unfavorable environmental conditions, like droughts or dry seasons. However, this type of brumation isn’t as severe as brumation caused by a cold environment. A good example is anacondas, which live in warm and tropical climates.

How Long Do Snakes Brumate?

Brumation lasts as long as the weather is unfavorable for the snake’s normal metabolic activity. It is determined by the environmental conditions and the species of snakes. Brumation can last as long as nine months in very cold climates, while it could be a matter of weeks in other climates.

Similarly, different species do not react to cold temperatures in the same way.

How Do You Know If a Snake Is Hibernating?

It is very possible to encounter snakes during brumation. The best way to tell is by the time of year and the behavior of the snake.

For example, if you happen to encounter a slow and sluggishly moving snake under a pile of mulch during the cold winter months of November and December, then they’re probably brumating.

If you find hundreds of garter snakes in a spot during the cold winter months, they’re probably brumating.

They are not as agile as they used to be in the summer, and sometimes they do not move away when you meet them. This tells you that they’re in brumation.

Can Snakes Die While in Brumation?

Yes, snakes can die during brumation. Brumation is a very vulnerable period for snakes, which is why they choose conducive areas for brumation. Failure to do so might result in death. Snakes may not be able to defend themselves well against their predators during brumation. King snakes are known to eat other vulnerable snakes during brumation.

Do Pet Snakes Brumate?

Brumation is very common for snakes in cold regions and pet snakes in cold regions aren’t an exception. They go into brumation just like other snakes in the wild. Pet owners have to make sure that they provide their snakes with warm enclosures during the cold months. The major sign that shows when your pet snake is about to go into brumation is that they begin to lose their appetite. They will also show signs of weakness and sluggishness that correspond to the partial dormancy state of brumation.

Conclusion

Technically, snakes hibernate, but it is called brumation. They do not hibernate the way other animals do, such as rodents, bats and bears. A snake in brumation only shows partial dormancy. They are still able to move about during this time, but they’re usually slow and sluggish. Snakes eat less in the months leading up to their brumation period. This is to make sure that they are able to digest all the food in their bodies. They experience a reduction in metabolic activities during brumation. According to scientists and snake researchers, brumation helps snakes live healthy lives.

About the Author

snakes hibernate brumate

Dustin Williams

Dustin Williams is a seasoned author who brings a wealth of knowledge and experience to the world of pet literature. His expertise stems from a lifelong immersion in the fascinating world of animal companionship and care. As a third-generation aquarist, Mr. Williams boasts a deep understanding of aquatic life. His passion began in childhood and [...] Author Details

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