Do snakes hibernate? They Don’t. They Do Something Else

Do snakes hibernate cover image

Snakes are magnificent creatures. Some are dangerous, some not very. And all different species of snakes are fascinating to learn about. Since they are reptile, do snakes hibernate? And if yes, where do snakes go in the winter? This article will tell you everything about the snakes, their food, their habitat, and their behavior. First, let’s start with snake hibernation.

What is hibernation

Hibernation is the suspension of major body functions to preserve heat during cold seasons. This is not just merely sleeping as we humans do in winter mornings, snoozing the alarm five times. Hibernation is more akin to unconsciousness in which the body function almost ceases. Since winters are very harsh if you don’t have a central heating system, animals and reptiles have found an evolutionary way to avoid winter completely. This they do by finding a great spot to protect from the cold and storing enough fat to survive.

Snakes don’t hibernate, they go for brumation

Although hibernation is very similar to brumation, it would be wrong to call the two same. Hibernation is this unconscious suspension of the body with fat reserves. Brumation is similar in which snakes go into a state of inactivity, but it isn’t deep sleep. Brumation is more of a lethargic state, kind of like when you eat a bag of nachos on a Sunday evening and watch TV. Snakes arise from brumation to forage for some food and water. 

Snakes can store fat in their body, but they cannot use it to produce heat. This is because they are cold-blooded animals (ectothermic). This requires them to wake up after brumation, find food, and then go back to sleep again. Food foraging is not as frequent as when the snake is at an active state. This is how snakes survive for cold months. 

Where do snakes go in winter

So where do snakes go in the winter? Or more precisely, where do snakes go for brumation? Anywhere that can give them warmth and a comfortable place to sleep. In the wild, it can be underground burrows, holes, anywhere comfortable and warm. 

While there are endless spots for snakes in the wild, there are many snakes that are city dwellers. What about them? They find a comfortable place is boiler rooms, plumbing areas, pipes, basement, garages, etc. Anywhere that has warmth and is not frequently visited by humans. Snakes don’t pay rent and try to avoid the landlords.

Image of a snake in the dark

When do snakes hibernate (brumation)

The period of brumation for snakes varies, depending upon the weather of the location and even the species. In the US, most snakes are active from spring to the onset of winter. This means that snakes start their brumation with the onset of October. They are least active in December and January. 

Let’s take the example of Australia where the coldest months are June, July, and August. Naturally, snakes will go for brumation is these months when food is scarce and the weather is harsh. The UK has the normal pattern of weather; December, January, and, February are the winter months so snakes there would choose these months for brumation. 

Depending on the species some snakes require less time for brumation while some need weeks or months. If there is a day or two when the sun shines well in the winter months, expect snakes to come out of their slumber for food and water. Some snakes like the boa or the python don’t need brumation. They are active all-year-round.

Why hibernation or brumation? 

Being cold-blooded animals brings a lot of challenges. The difference between warm-blooded and cold-blooded animals is that warm-blooded animals can control their body temperature from the inside. They are called endotherms. Humans and other mammals are endotherms. 

Cold-blooded animals or ectotherms cannot regulate their body temperature. So if the weather gets hot, their body gets hot. The same goes for cold. And since all lifeforms can only exist within a range of temperatures, ectotherms had to find a way to survive the cold or the heat. 

So most of the reptiles and some mammals eat a lot of food, get a comfortable spot that is warm and safe from predators (yes, even snakes have predators such as mongooses, boars, raccoons, etc). They stay dormant in these hibernacula until the season passes. Cold weather decreases the body temperature of ectotherms. This makes them slow, lethargic, and unable to prey and prone to be preyed upon. So the best option is to find a good hiding spot and let the winter come and go. The same goes for hot seasons. The rest in summer is called aestivation. 

How much food do snakes hold for brumation?

Snakes don’t eat frequently as most mammals do. Young, small snakes eat twice in a weak while larger snakes eat once in a week. Snakes also capable of surviving without food for long periods. This ranges from three months to six months. Research by Marshall McCue showed that some snakes can live for as long as 2-years without food.

This is the reason why snakes seek a comfortable spot for spending their winter days. Not all snakes go for brumation, as mentioned before. Snakes in most of the tropical countries don’t go for brumation at all. 

What’s more fascinating is that many snakes don’t hibernate alone, but together with other snakes. The cold weather is taxing for the cold-blooded bodies. Snakes in contact with other snakes can reduce the effects of cold weather, creating a type of insulation. This is why many people discover hundreds of snakes in hibernacula. Imagine seeing that in your garage!

Snakes become inactive/lethargic when the temperature drops below 70 degrees Fahrenheit or about 20 degrees Celsius. This temperature is variable for different species but on average, this is when the snakes start looking for a winter home. The period of brumation also varies depending on the weather. Some snakes are in brumation for as long as six months while others only for one or two months. 

Places like Florida or Texas which are considered to be the warmer states also record temperature as low as 41 degrees Fahrenheit or 5 degrees Celsius in Tallahassee. Florida has an average low of degrees Fahrenheit. So snakes in Florida go for brumation. The same goes for Texas.

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Literature cited: McCue MD. Snakes survive starvation by employing supply- and demand-side economic strategies. Zoology (Jena). 2007;110(4):318-327. DOI:10.1016/j.zool.2007.02.004

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