Where do reptiles go when there is snow?

With spring’s arrival, reptiles are beginning to emerge in Ontario. But have you ever wondered what they do during our cold, snowy winters? Reptiles don’t migrate, so what do they do instead?

Reptiles are ectothermswhich means their body temperature is determined by their environment. When the outside temperature cools, so do they. This has a profound impact on their behaviour and metabolism.

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Frozen wetland © Kelsey Bedard

Snakes and turtles must stop eating before they cool, otherwise the food in their gut may rot instead of being digested. This can be dangerous and even fatal! Reptile metabolic rates are reduced during the winter which allows them to survive without food. Here in Ontario that can be upwards of 6-7 months without a meal! The length of reptile hibernation is also linked to their growth rate. Scientists believe that when a reptile’s metabolism slows, so does the rate they grow and age.

But that doesn’t stop them! Some people mistakenly believe that reptiles don’t move during the winter – for example, that turtles bury themselves in mud and don’t move again until spring. However, we have evidence to the contrary! Reptiles are not true hibernators; instead, they experience brumation. This means they do not remain completely dormant the entire winter. Their metabolism and heart rate slow, but they remain mostly conscious, and even active. Eastern gartersnakes will sometimes leave their hibernacula to bask on the snow and turtles have been seen swimming around under the ice.

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Gartersnake winter basking on warm day © Kelsey Bedard

Unique adaptations help these animals cope with cold temperatures. Turtles don’t need to come up for air during winter, which is beneficial since ice is sometimes in their way. Since they still need oxygen, their bodies have a different way of acquiring it. They absorb it through their cloaca (also known as their butts)!

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Northern map turtle brumating © Gregory Bulte

While winter is a harsh time for many Ontario animals, you can rest assured reptiles have their own clever adaptations to make it through. Being a reptile in winter is pretty cool!

Kelsey is the Project Co-ordinator for the Saving Turtles at Risk Today (START) Project, a multi-partner turtle conservation effort led by Scales Nature Park in southern Muskoka and the Lake Simcoe watershed. She thrives on the combination of field work and community engagement. She enjoys long chilly swims in the spring, moonlit nesting surveys, and fine granola bars 🙂