Warm Enough For Ya?

By Alida Lemieux

Caught May 5th, this Gray Ratsnake probably spent its first winter in a forested Murphys Point campground. Photo: Alida Lemieux.

Spring has finally sprung, and Gray Ratsnakes are emerging from their overwintering sites, or hibernacula.  We humans are “emerging” from our homes as well; ready to take on whatever weird weather and flip-flopping temperatures Nature has to offer us!

Both snakes and humans must thermoregulate, or adjust body temperature, to function properly.  An optimal body temperature of around 28 degrees Celsius (9 degrees cooler than a human’s normal body temperature) helps a Ratsnake to move, eat, digest, mate, or shed efficiently.  While endothermic (warm-blooded) humans thermoregulate by sweating, shivering, or adjusting layers of clothing, ectothermic (cold-blooded) Ratsnakes can only rely on the temperature of their surrounding environment to warm them up or cool them down.  A nice rock or cedar branch often provides a Ratsnake with the perfect spot for soaking up rays on a breezy spring day.  Unlike a die-hard beach bum though, Ratsnakes don’t like to cook themselves!  A hollow tree or rock pile can offer cool comfort during a heat wave.

Interestingly, Gray Ratsnake habitat is connected to thermoregulation.  Adult Ratsnakes in particular need forest edge habitats, which offer quick access to both shade and sun.  A “best of both worlds” habitat means less travel and movement is necessary, which means the snake’s energy can be preserved.  This is particularly helpful to a gravid female (a snake carrying eggs) or a snake who’s just eaten a big meal of chipmunk!  Juvenile Ratsnakes, on the other hand, are just about as likely to be found within forests as they are at forest edges: being smaller, they can thermoregulate and energize themselves more quickly than large adults.

Much of the research on Ratsnake thermoregulation was conducted by Gabriel Blouin-Demers.  For more information, check out his website at: http://mysite.science.uottowa.ca/gblouin/publications.html

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