Reptiles in winter

As winter disappears and the sun blesses us with warmer days, we tend to see more and more tracks of snakes and other reptiles across the roads. Often we get the question in winter whether we will be seeing some snakes. Mostly because most people are terrified of snakes and the thought of seeing one on safari could ruin a perfect day. But why do we not see snakes and tortoises in the winter?

Everybody has heard of hibernation. But what exactly is it? Quite simply it is the slowing down or even complete standstill of development and growth in any organism. It seems to be difficult to understand how an animal can just completely stop developing over an extended period of time. Although, plants “hibernate” every year. It seems like the tree is dead, but in actual fact it has just stopped developing because of conditions not being favorable. This could induce a lack of sufficient water, cold climates or lack of sunshine.

In a way, reptiles do the same. They are dependant on outside temperatures to regulate their body temperature. Hence they are called ectothermic and not cold blooded as we used to describe them. This enables them to survive in much greater temperature differences than any mammal or bird.

When conditions become unfavorable, they simply go into a state known as Brumination. This is different from hibernation. When an animal hibernates, it goes into a very deep sleep and does not eat or drink during that whole cycle. Thus for that period, development stops; a lot like a plant in winter. However, when a reptile bruminates, it also goes into a resting stage, but development does not stop completely. They may cease to eat for that period as their metabolic rate drops and they do not need to eat that often. Although they still need to consume water in that time to prevent dehydration. That means that reptiles simply sleep and do not go into a coma-like state. As this is an area with quite warm winters, it means the period of brumination is less than usual and lasts only for 3 to 4 months, compared to 8 months in other parts of the world.

To answer the question in short, yes it is possible to see snakes, but highly unlikely. If it happens it will most likely be on a road or on a rock where they will be trying to heat up their bodies.

Jacques Beukes – Kapama River Lodge
23/092012



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