Do Snakes Hibernate?

Written by Dana Mayor
Updated: September 18, 2022
Image Credit iStock.com/Cavan Images
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Key Facts

  • Snakes have their very own means of preparing for the colder months.
  • Rather than stocking up on fat, they ensure they accumulate sufficient quantities of glycogen so their muscles are ready to get moving once it’s warm enough to wander around again.
  • Unlike bears they don’t tuck away copious quantities at dinner time as winter draws closer as doing so could be very dangerous!

When you think of a garter snake or a rattlesnake, do you picture it slithering through the snow in the wintertime? No way! This is an ectothermic reptile. This means they don’t maintain their own body temperature. Instead, their body temperature is determined by their environment. So, it seems logical to assume snakes hibernate in the winter. Not so fast! It turns out snakes hibernate, but not in the same way bears and other mammals do. Continue reading to learn how and when snakes hibernate, if they hibernate in groups, and where they take shelter in the winter.

Do Snakes Hibernate?

Snakes do not eat more to store fat before entering brumation.

Yes, snakes do hibernate, just not in the traditional way we think of hibernation. Instead, they go into something called brumation in the winter. They have to go into this state of partial dormancy or partial sleep because they need to conserve energy for breeding and other activity in the warm weather months. Though hibernation and brumation are similar, there are some important facts that differentiate them.

What is the Difference Between Hibernation and Brumation?

When you think of hibernation you probably picture a bear, a prairie dog, or even a bat. These mammals eat more in the late summer and fall. This is so they have extra fat on their bodies to use as nourishment while in hibernation in the winter. Hibernation involves sleeping throughout the winter months. Animals in hibernation don’t take breaks or go out to get water or food.

When a reptile prepares to go into brumation, it doesn’t eat more to store up fat on its body. Instead, it builds the supply of glycogen or sugar, in its system. Glycogen keeps a snake’s muscles in good condition so it’s ready to come out of brumation when the temperatures warm up in the spring season.

As the winter season gets closer, a snake eats less and less. Their digestive process is aided by the warm temperatures. So, as temperatures drop, they know the less they eat, the less time it will take to digest it. This is important because a snake that takes in too much food as temperatures drop is left with food sitting in its stomach. Unfortunately, a stomach full of undigested food can rot and kill the snake. Once again, this is where the reptile’s instincts kick in and tell it what to do to stay alive over the cold weather months.

One of the biggest differences between hibernation and brumation is the level of activity of the animal. During hibernation, a mammal sleeps and doesn’t emerge from its shelter in the winter. Alternatively, during brumation, this reptile may sleep, but only for short periods of time. It moves around in a notably slow, sluggish way. This is because its metabolism has slowed.

One of the most amazing facts about a snake’s brumation period is the reptile sometimes makes an unexpected appearance! On sunny, warm days in the winter, it’s not unusual to see a snake out sunning itself on a rock. Remember, this reptile is ectothermic. This means its body temperature depends on the temperature in the environment around it. So, when the sun is out and the temperature is warmer than usual, this reptile sees an opportunity to warm its body even in January!

When Do Wild Snakes Go into Brumation?

There is no specific time for when and how long snakes go into brumation.

iStock.com/premat

There’s no specific date when all snakes go into brumation. Like many other animals, this reptile relies on its instincts to tell it when to seek shelter for the cold weather months. When it detects a drop in temperature and changing amounts of sunlight, it knows to go into brumation.

Where Do Wild Snakes Brumate?

When it’s time to brumate in the winter, snakes look for cover of all types. A pile of sticks, a crevice between rocks in a wall, or beneath a pile of mulch are all examples of places where snakes go in the winter. They look for a place where they won’t be disturbed by animals or people while in such a weakened, sluggish condition.

Some snakes spend their brumation period in dens. A den is a small space usually with a narrow opening that only this reptile could navigate. A den may be located in a rocky hillside, under the foundation of a building that’s under construction, or even beneath a set of outdoor steps.

While some snakes choose a convenient place in their habitat to serve as a shelter in the winter, other snakes have a more specific option in mind. For instance, when it’s time to go into brumation, a timber rattlesnake travels back to the den where it was born to take shelter from the cold weather.

A source of water such as a stream or pond is a common feature found near a snake’s den or other winter shelters. A snake in brumation must have access to water or it will become dehydrated during the winter months and die.

Do Snakes Brumate Alone or Together?

The answer is both. Some snakes like the Massasauga rattlesnake and eastern hognose snake usually go into brumation alone. On the other hand, garter snakes are notorious for going into brumation in large groups. This is called communal brumation. There are even different species of snakes that brumate together. Black racers and rattlesnakes have been found wintering in the same place.

How Long Are Snakes in Brumation?

The duration of brumation is influenced by the climate and the attitude.

In colder areas it may last as long as nine months, while on the other hand, a snake in warmer climes may come out of brumation in a matter of weeks.

Snakes which live at higher altitudes will also experience longer periods of brumation compared to those which live at lower altitudes.

How Can You Tell If a Snake is in Brumation?

It’s not uncommon for a person to encounter a snake in brumation. Along with taking into account the season of the year, a snake’s behavior can be a telltale sign it’s in brumation.

The snake is going to be moving in a slow, lazy way. This behavior is very different from the way a snake normally slithers along the ground through the weeds. In addition, the reptile may seem confused. It doesn’t dart away from the person who encounters it. This is an indication it’s in the partially dormant state of brumation.

Do Snakes Ever Die While in Brumation?

Yes. If this reptile is in a den with other snakes it may be attacked and killed by another species of snake. Young rattlesnakes are sometimes killed by the Black racers that brumate in the same den with them.

A snake will sometimes venture too far from its winter shelter while looking for a place to bask in the sunlight. If it doesn’t return to its shelter before the temperature drops again, it may not have enough energy to get back.

Do Pet Snakes Go into Brumation?

Snakes sometimes come out of their shelters to bask in the sunlight during brumation.

iStock.com/Govert van Tongerloo

Yes, even reptiles kept as pets go into brumation. This is one of those facts the owner of a python, garter, or another type of snake must consider.

A pet snake that is preparing to go into brumation is not going to have much of an appetite. This is the same reaction as snakes in the wild. In addition, its activity level will drop as it moves into this state of partial dormancy.

There is something an owner can do to prevent a pet snake from going into brumation. The person can maintain a warm temperature in the reptile’s habitat throughout the year. It makes sense when you think about it. A reptile in the wild goes into brumation as a reaction to dropping temperatures and less daylight. These conditions can be controlled in the habitat of a pet snake.

What If You Find a Snake in Brumation?

Say you’re out walking in the winter, and you see a sluggish, slow-moving snake in the woods. What do you do?

First, don’t try to move the reptile. As mentioned above, snakes in brumation sometimes come out of their dens or shelters to bask in the sunlight on a warm winter day. Furthermore, whether it’s poisonous or not, a snake in brumation can still bite. So, be cautious when moving around it. Next, though the reptile may seem lost, it may have a shelter nearby. So, trying to move it somewhere else is not going to help it. In fact, it will delay its journey back to shelter and put it at risk. The reptile may be out to get a drink of water to prevent dehydration. Third, if you think you’ve disturbed a snake causing it to leave its den or shelter, it’s still not a good idea to touch or move it. There’s a good chance the snake will find its way back to its shelter.

Up Next…

Keep reading these posts for more incredible information about key animal facts.

  • How Do Snakes Mate?: Do they have elaborate courtship rituals? Is one partner in danger of getting gobbled up by the other once the deed is done? Find out the answers to all your questions in this post.
  • How Often Do Snakes Shed?: For these slithering reptiles, it’s the equivalent of changing their wardrobe. But how often do they have to do that? The answers are provided right here.

blue snake on a branch
blue snake on a branch
iStock.com/Cavan Images
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About the Author

I love good books and the occasional cartoon. I am also endlessly intrigued with the beauty of nature and find hummingbirds, puppies, and marine wildlife to be the most magical creatures of all.

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