As a general rule, humans enjoy napping, especially the babies and adolescences of our population. The two are no so different. But imagine taking a nap that lasted 6 months! That’s a lot of sleep! There are some critters in our world that indulge in this massive nap. Many of them are reptiles and amphibians who are ectothermic (cold-blooded!) and because they rely on the environment to regulate their own body temperature, they cannot withstand the cold days of winter. The gray ratsnake is no exception! Gray ratsnakes start to disappear into their hibernacula in early October and usually do not return to activity until April.
Scientists believe that there is an internal rhythm within the snake that knows when it is too cold and again realizes when it is warm enough to wake up and return to spring time activities.
So where do they go to get out of the harsh winter winds? Ratsnakes like their hibernaculum to be deep, safe, and warm. They are usually created out of deep, underground holes, or large rock crevices. Because prime conditions cannot be found just anywhere, snakes will hibernate communally. The average group ranges from 10-60 snakes; but can get up to 100, depending on size. It’s quite a sight to see when they all come out to bask in the spring!
Juvenile snakes or young hatchlings will hibernate by themselves for the first few years. They usually find a small warm spot somewhere near their nesting site. The young snakes will not join a communal hibernaculum until they are 3 or 4 years old. Once they have found their adult hibernaculum, they are very loyal to it. Over 95% of adult gray ratsnakes will return to the same hibernaculum year after year. If you’ve found a warm, safe spot, why mess with a good thing, right?
Finding a hibernaculum is very good luck in areas where there is a ratsnake research or conservation project going on (like Murphy’s Point!). Before the snakes emerge, a fence can be put around the hibernaculum with a large trap attached to it. This prevents the ratsnakes from leaving right away and they can be counted, sometimes measure or micro-chipped, and released. This helps keep a tab on the numbers of this species a risk! Identification can also be used to protect the hibernaculum as if they are destroyed, snakes may freeze to death looking for it. No one wants that to happen!
Hibernation is a key role in the lives of many reptiles, including the gray ratsnake. Just remember next time its below 0 degrees Celsius and you don’t want to leave your bed, the gray ratsnake sympathizes with you!