Snakes can be found on every continent except Antarctica. They have a wide range of habitats ranging from forests and grasslands to deserts and rocky mountainsides.
Some snakes are even fully aquatic. This can include habitats where the temperatures drop during winter. You may live in a place that sees snow in the winter but still has snakes that appear during the warmer seasons.
This may lead you to wonder if snakes survive the winter by hibernating like some mammals.
Do Snakes Hibernate?
In general, if a snake lives in a habitat that has a cold winter, it will engage in something similar to hibernation. The metabolism of the snake will drop to allow them to survive long periods without food.
In mammals, hibernation involves building up fat stores to last the winter. The animal will then sleep until spring and warmer temperatures arrive.
During hibernation, mammals will not move or even really awaken. Reptiles like snakes go through a similar process, but there are differences.
The name for overwintering behavior in snakes is brumation. Snakes prepare for brumation by building up glycogen.
This is a sugar used to fuel muscles. Snakes use fat primarily for reproduction, while glycogen can keep muscles fueled while the snake fasts during winter.
Brumation allows snakes to survive periods where they cannot digest a meal by slowing down their metabolism.
This prevents weight and muscle loss over the winter. Snakes do not sleep through the whole winter, they are just slow and sluggish.
Snakes require access to hydration during brumation. Snakes will wake up to drink during the winter. They may also come out to bask on warmer days.
Snakes also typically need less oxygen during brumation since all of their metabolic processes have slowed down. Many snakes will select a den site and wait out the winter in it.
Snakes like timber rattlesnakes will return to the den where they were born. Species like black racers may share the den and even prey on baby rattlesnakes once the temperatures rise.
Eastern garter snakes famously brumate in communal dens.
They have been known to travel long distances to reach these dens. Hundreds of snakes from single or multiple species will share a den site. Once spring arrives, Eastern garter snakes take the chance to breed while they are gathered together.
Most snakes in temperate or subtropical climates will brumate if it is cold enough. The only snakes that do not typically experience cooler temperatures are tropical snakes.
Some species even require a drop in temperatures and daylight hours to increase reproductive success or breed at all. Corn snakes need to brumate to breed, and many have noted that ball pythons will produce more eggs if they are cooled before the breeding season.
Snakes generally rely on temperature, hours of daylight, and their own internal clock to tell them when to brumate. Many captive snakes will still cease eating even if their temperatures stay the same.
When the snake senses the approach of winter, they will generally lose their appetite. This is because snakes rely on outside temperature to help them digest.
If a meal takes too long to digest, the food will rot in the snake’s stomach and can harm or kill the snake. Once the temperature drops, snakes lose their appetite.
Generally, they will cease eating early enough that any food can pass fully through the digestive tract. If you have a captive snake, a sudden loss of appetite outside of winter can mean that your heat source isn’t working properly anymore.
Snakes in the wild will try to find a safe den that will stay above freezing. They also prefer having a source of water nearby since they can become dehydrated without it.
Captive snakes rely on their keeper to set up the proper conditions. Captive snakes do not typically need brumation, but some keepers will brumate to help keep their snake’s natural rhythm in sync.
Some snakes will also respond to changing daylight hours by preparing to brumate. This can happen even if you provide full spectrum lighting. If your snake refuses to eat, it will need to be brumated to keep it from starving.
How to Brumate Your Pet Snake in Captivity
If you plan to brumate your snake, you will need to know exactly how cold your snake needs to be and how long they should be brumated.
This depends heavily on the exact species, so do your research. The general guidelines are that you need to cool your snake slowly over a few weeks. Cease feeding and shorten the hours you have any lighting on.
Give the snake a minimum of two weeks of fasting at normal daytime temperatures so they pass any stool. Once you are sure your snake has cleared its digestive system, you can start cooling the snake.
Drop the temperature gradually over a few weeks. If your snake has a hot spot of 88 degrees normally and needs to be kept at 55 degrees,you should aim to drop no more than a few degrees a week.
You are basically simulating the normal drop in temperatures that occurs during mid-fall. Where you brumate you snake will depend on what you have available. If you have a room that can be kept at a stable temperature, you can use that to brumate your snake. Some keepers use an old fridge that can be kept at the right temperature.
Just remember that your snake still needs some air. You can keep your snake in its enclosure or move it into something smaller like the temporary enclosure you use when doing a deep cleaning of your snake’s home.
Either way, it needs some substrate that is easy to clean and a water dish. Once your snake is at the winter temperature, try to check it a minimum of once a week to replace the water and clean any messes.
Once you are ready to take your snake out of brumation, you can reverse the process. Raise the temperature slowly over a few weeks to simulate the arrival of spring.
Once you are at normal temperatures, wait at least a week to feed your snake a smaller meal. Then it should be back to normal.
Snakes that live in colder climates do spend the winter in a similar state to hibernation. If you have any questions or comments, please leave them below.