If you live in a colder country that has wild snakes, you’ve probably noticed that there are fewer snakes around in the colder months. Snakes seem to vanish before returning when it’s warmer.
Snakes brumate. Brumation is a low-energy state that snakes go into over the winter. It’s similar to hibernation, except snakes don’t go into a deep sleep. They just stop moving around as much to maintain their body temperature and conserve energy.
We’ll share some interesting snake ‘hibernation’ facts. You’ll learn what brumation is, why snakes brumate and if it’s common to all snakes. We’ll then look at how long brumation lasts for, where snakes go to brumate, and whether snakes brumate in captivity.
What Is Brumation in Snakes?
All reptiles are cold-blooded (ectothermic). This means that snakes rely on their living environment to provide warmth.
Brumation is a low-energy state that many snakes enter during the colder months of the year. It’s the reptilian equivalent of hibernation, occurring in response to falling temperatures.
In late autumn, before brumation begins, snakes sense that the temperature is starting to drop. In response, they may eat more than usual in order to build up their body’s fat stores.
During brumation, snakes don’t eat at all. It’s, therefore, essential that their bodies contain enough fat to keep them going until the Spring arrives.
When brumation begins, snakes will stop eating. They will seek out a place to rest, ideally near a source of heat.
During brumation, snakes become very lethargic and do not move much at all. In fact, it can be hard to tell the difference between a brumating and a dead snake. They still drink water and will move to get to a water source. However, they don’t eat during this time.
The reason that snakes don’t eat during brumation is that they’d be unable to digestion their meals. The food would just sit in the stomach and eventually go bad, so the snake would become sick.
In the spring, when temperatures start to rise, snakes come out of brumation. This is usually the time of year when females seek a mate, to ensure that the babies will be born before the winter arrives.
Snakes aren’t the only type of reptile that brumates. Many tortoises, geckos, bearded dragons and other lizards also brumate.
What’s The Difference Between Brumation And Hibernation in Reptiles?
You may think that brumation is the same as hibernation. And in fact, the two processes are quite similar. Both processes are dormancy triggered by drops in temperature and reduced daylight hours.
In both states, animals build up fat reserves before becoming dormant and use these reserves for energy over the winter. And in both hibernation and brumation, feeding stops throughout, resuming again in the spring. However, there are some distinct differences in the biological processes:
- Hibernation occurs in endothermic (warm-blooded) animals. It’s defined by a deliberate reduction in body temperature caused by a slowed metabolic rate. Snakes are ectotherms, so they do not lower their body temperature deliberately. Instead, they brumate to prevent their body temperature from falling too low.
- Animals that hibernate sleep throughout the winter. Snakes do not sleep when they brumate, but are less active. If there’s an unusually warm day in the winter, snakes may venture out of their hiding place for a while before returning in the evening.
- Snakes still need water when brumating. When mammals hibernate, they go without both food and water throughout the process.
- During brumation, snakes and other reptiles can tolerate low oxygen levels. Turtles can even brumate underwater and in the mud. Hibernating mammals, of course, can’t.
So, though hibernation and brumation are relatively similar, it’s wrong to say that snakes hibernate. They are biologically different processes.
Do All Snakes Brumate?
Not all snakes brumate. It all comes down to the temperature of their natural habitat. Snakes that live in countries that are cooler in the winter will brumate.
All snakes native to America brumate because of the relatively cold winters. Snakes frequently gather together in large groups to brumate in order to preserve their body heat.
Tropical snakes, living in areas closer to the equator, such as South America, will not brumate. There isn’t any need for them to do so.
In their native habitats, temperatures do not drop low enough for brumation to be necessary. These snakes can continue functioning as normal throughout the winter with no ill effects.
Why Do Snakes Brumate?
All animals regulate their body heat in one of two ways:
- Endothermic animals, also called “warm-blooded,” generate their own body heat. Most mammals, including humans, are endotherms. Our bodies regulate our temperature via a process called homeostasis. Through this, we’re able to keep our core temperature at around 98.6 degrees Fahrenheit, regardless of whether it’s summer or winter.
- Ectothermic animals, referred to as “cold-blooded,” depend upon external sources of heat to warm up their bodies.
As well as being ectothermic, snakes are poikilothermic. This means that their internal temperature can vary considerably with no ill effects. They can survive and function over a much wider temperature range than humans. However, there are still upper and lower limits to this.
All animals use a process called thermoregulation to keep their body temperature within safe boundaries. But because snakes cannot produce their own metabolic heat, they have to do this by seeking warmer and colder areas based on their body temperature, as the need arises.
This is where brumation comes in. In the winter, it’s too cold for most snakes to survive out in the open. Moving around and hunting prey uses energy, and if their body temperature were to drop too much, they’d die.
Brumation enables snakes to thermoregulate over the colder months. Their extra fat stores mean that they don’t need to feed, saving energy.
At What Temperature Do Snakes Brumate?
The temperature that will trigger a snake into beginning (and ending) brumation depends on the species. This is because of evolutionary adaptation. Snakes that are native to colder areas can usually withstand colder weather than those from tropical climes.
That being said, it is possible to provide an estimate. The point for most species of US-native snake tends to be about 60 degrees Fahrenheit.
When temperatures start to drop below that level, snakes will begin to brumate. In the spring, when temperatures begin to creep back up to 60, snakes will start to come out of brumation.
Of course, the environmental temperature triggering snakes to go into brumation will vary by species. The amount of daylight will also have some effect as this enables snakes to determine when winter is approaching.
How Long Do Snakes Brumate For?
Snakes will brumate from late autumn until early spring, when the temperatures start to rise. However, this will vary depending on the climate in the region where the snake lives.
Let’s use the United States as an example. In the northern states, such as Minnesota, temperatures drop earlier in the year than they do in the southern states, such as Florida. It also takes longer for temperatures to rise again in the spring. So, in these states, snakes will brumate for longer periods of time.
As a general rule, snakes will start to go into brumation from late September to early December. This will vary depending on the temperature. In the springtime, snakes will emerge from their hibernaculums between March and April.
Bear in mind that, unlike hibernation, brumation is not a continuous process. Since snakes do not sleep throughout the process, they may still come out on warmer days. Freak cold snaps can trick snakes into brumating early, but they will surface again when temperatures normalize.
Where Do Snakes Brumate?
Snakes brumate to conserve body heat. If they stay out in the open, their temperature may drop to dangerous levels. So, for that reason, snakes look for small, enclosed spaces in which to brumate.
When you’re walking around outside, you won’t see a snake brumating. They’ll never just brumate by lying around on the surface of the ground. Instead, a snake may choose spots such as:
- Cracks in rocky outcrops
- Burrows dug by rodents and other animals
- Holes in tree stumps
- Wells and other man-made holes in the ground
Snakes tend to brumate underground. Interestingly, this is the only time of year during which snakes get together, except for mating season. Though snakes are usually quite asocial creatures, brumating together is an effective way to thermoregulate.
In other words, snakes help to keep each other warm. According to a study in the Journal of Herpetology, snakes tend to return to the same hibernaculums (brumation spots) year after year.
Do snakes hibernate in houses? Crawl spaces, in particular, are favorite brumating spots for snakes. If there is some way for a snake to get into your home, you may even discover one brumating in your basement.
Do Pet Snakes Brumate in Captivity?
Probably not, unless one of two things happens:
- You fail to maintain a warm temperature in your snake’s enclosure during the winter months
- You lower the temperature to encourage your snake to brumate.
You need to ensure that their enclosure remains at the optimal temperature for your snake. This will allow your snake to thrive and stay active throughout the year.
In an adequately heated vivarium, which remains warm year-round, snakes in captivity will not brumate. This is because they won’t need to. The only reason snakes go into brumation is because the temperature is low enough that it demands it.
Brumating Your Snake for Breeding
Some snake owners who wish to breed their snakes will deliberately lower the vivarium’s temperature to encourage brumation.
This is because the springtime, when snakes come out of brumation, is prime breeding time. Often, the process of coming out of brumation will trigger snakes to seek a mate. If you’re planning to breed your snake, brumating is not essential. Snakes will often mate even without going into brumation first.
Not all species of snake can brumate. Even for those that can, lowering the temperature too much, for too long, or not ensuring that your snake has emptied itself of all waste first, can have devastating physical effects.
According to the Journal of Animal Physiology and Animal Nutrition, going into brumation with waste in the digestive system can cause intestinal impaction, which can be fatal.