The truth of hibernating snakes; Lecture to zoo conservation audience in Albuquerque on new discoveries about rattlesnake hibernation

May 21, 2017 • Vistas

Shown is one of Ray Pawley’s diamondback rattlesnakes that resides in the hibernaculum. Pawley discovered through an experiment that his snakes put on some weight and even grew slightly during hibernation. The rattlesnake shown in this photo is about 5 feet long. (Submitted Photo)

By Ray Pawley

Special to the Daily Record

At my Arabela home and reptile laboratory, I discovered some previously unknown behavior and physiology data concerning rattlesnakes and bullsnakes.
Traditionally, the general population –– including sportsmen and professional zoologists –– has assumed that all hibernators need to gain weight in autumn so that they can survive the winter until they emerge the following spring. Bears do it, woodchucks do it and, supposedly, lizards and snakes.
Or do they?
I harbor a small collection of bullsnakes and black-tailed and diamondback rattlesnakes and have been long intrigued by the remarkably superb condition of rattlesnakes when they emerge from their dens in the springtime.
So I started to keep records.
For two years, the snakes were weighed and measured after their last meal in October and then again after hibernation and once more in early April before their first meal.
The results were surprising but confirming: The snakes usually put on some weight and may even grow slightly during hibernation, a period when warm-blooded animals are burning up energy in order to survive. Of the four diamondbacks, three gained at least 1 ounce and grew in length by 2 inches. One diamondback grew 2 inches but remained the same in weight. The single black-tailed rattlesnake lost 2 ounces. Of the two bullsnakes, each added an ounce, while a young specimen grew 7 inches.
While the gains are slight, the evidence is clear that, unlike mammals, all but one snake did not lose any weight. Perhaps hibernation gives snakes a chance to rest and restore themselves from the previous summer’s stresses.
Hibernating mammals, on the other hand, will go into their hibernation in top fit conditions, but emerge in the spring quite thin with a scruffy coat and a large appetite. After all, mammals cannot completely turn off their energy needs like reptiles can; they at least need to keep a bio-pilot light going to maintain a minimum of body heat.
If further datagathering with other cold-blooded animals shows a similar pattern, we will have to rethink the concept of hibernation; while warm-blooded mammals need to fatten up in the autumn to live off of their fat during the winter, the cold-blooded reptiles simply slow down, rest and restore themselves in their cold dens and emerge fully fit as they search for their next meal.
I was invited to give a lecture to over 100 members of the American Association of Zoos and Aquarium’s Technical Advisory Group on snakes in Albuquerque, specialists committed to propagating rare and endangered species, on May 9. Another lecture on the topic will be given in August to members of the International Herpetological Symposium.

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