Where Do Reptiles Go in the Winter?
Where Do Reptiles Go in the Winter?
Cold weather presents unique challenges for our reptile friends living in the wild. In this article, Jesse Rothacker, president of Forgotten Friend Reptile Sanctuary in Pennsylvania, offers his experience and knowledge on the topic. Forgotten Friend is a partner of the Zen Reptile Relief program.
The closer you are to the equator, the more reptiles you’re likely to meet. They cannot survive without heat. Antarctica is home to birds, mammals, and fish, but it is the only continent without reptiles. We know reptiles like it warm. So, where do they go when it gets cold?
Despite its frigid winters, Pennsylvania is home to nearly 40 native snakes, lizards, and turtles, none of which migrate south. They live in this climate 365 days a year and drastically change their behaviors to survive the ice and snow.
Jesse returned this ancient turtle to the winter wetlands. The quarter shows its size.
I am fortunate to observe their seasonal patterns every year, and these are a few of my observations:
In the summer months at Forgotten Friend Reptile Sanctuary, you’ll find a mix of native and exotic reptiles roaming our backyard. A small herd of African sulcata tortoise grazes on grass, like the cows and horses that live down the road. Our iguanas bask on branches in an open-air kennel, and our alligators’ lounge on a basking rock in the middle of a large pond. These species are exotic and not meant to withstand Pennsylvania winters.
We regularly take our iguanas and tortoises inside and outside during September and October as temperatures begin to drop. Because alligators are aquatic and water temperature doesn’t change as quickly as air temperature, they are more tolerant of temperature changes. Often by the beginning of November, our exotic reptiles are permanently indoors for the winter. The exception is when we get a rare day in the 60s or 70s, and the tortoises will spend a few hours grazing in the grass again.
Our native turtle garden is very different. We are permitted to keep several native box turtles and painted turtles, two of the fourteen turtle species that live in the wild in Pennsylvania. Over the summer, they are extremely active on every inch of the 700 square foot garden. During the winter, these native turtles remain outdoors, even under the ice and snow. They are equipped to survive Pennsylvania's harsh winters, but they will not be active for several months. As land turtles, box turtles dig into the ground, usually less than 12 inches deep. As aquatic turtles, painted turtles can spend several months underwater, lying at the bottom of the pond.
Even though these reptiles are cold-tolerant, they do need certain conditions to survive. The box turtles require large piles of mulch, leaves, and compost that become their winter blankets. Our aquatic turtles have layers of mud and leaves at the bottom of the ponds. The garter snakes hibernate by our front porch choose the south-facing side of our house that heats up in the sun every morning. They benefit from the greenhouse effect by hibernating under our vinyl siding, which gets very warm. We find them outside nearly every sunny day in the winter, even with temperatures in the 30s and 40s.
Jesse snapped a quick “shellfie” with this turtle heading back to its hibernation spot.
Reptiles have a small home range. Like other animals, they do not migrate south, but many still have different “summer homes” and “winter homes.” Timber rattlesnakes are well known to inhabit rocky mountaintops in the warmer months, but they go elsewhere for the winter. Some turtles may spend the warmer months in larger creeks and rivers but return to slow-moving wetlands to hibernate. I was recently on a chilly bike ride along the Susquehanna River when I encountered two snapping turtles crossing the trail. Both turtles were moving away from the river, heading toward a wetland. We can't know for sure, but I suspect they were both leaving their summer home, the Susquehanna River, heading toward their winter home in the adjacent wetlands.
It’s amazing how wildlife reacts so differently to the colder seasons. As daily temperatures dip below 40, local deer herds become more active, entering their annual breeding phase known as the rut. November is the most exciting month of the year for deer hunters for that reason.
Meanwhile, local reptiles start to slow down and seek out their hibernation spots. Eagles and owls will be sitting on eggs by mid-winter, and our local box turtles will still be frozen underground. They may spend nearly six months under the earth before resurfacing in March or April,
In many cases, rat snakes and milk snakes enter local homes in search of warm shelter. If this happens and you do not want to live with a snake in your home, contact your local rescue for help.