First of all, what
is it? Brumation is a specialized kind of hibernation. Often, the two words are used
interchangably when referring to garters, but brumation is actually the more correct term.
This page describes the natural function of brumation, and the role that it could possibly
play in the life of your garter, if you choose to.
terminology: While hibernation is a long period of lowered inactivity, brumation
is a kind of selective hibernation. In the wild, garter snakes brumate when the weather
gets too cold to support their lifestyle. Garters 'den', or gather together in large
numbers in any sort of sheltered area, such as a crevice in a rock, or basements and
storage sheds. Denning is most notable among Eastern and Canadian garter snakes, which
form groups of several hundred, and make quite a spectacle when they emerge together in
the spring. Brumation itself causes the snake's metabolism to lower and for the animal to
become inactive for cold periods. If a warm day or two happens to come along, a garter can
'wake up' and become active again. This is the main thing that seperates brumation from a
much more long-term hibernation.
if you have it: So if garter snakes brumate in the wild, does yours need to? The
answer is no, brumation is not essential for a garter's health, and can often be the
demise of snakes if brumation is attempted, but not done properly. You might read this and
want to avoid brumating your garter, but be aware that you may not have a choice in the
matter. Most wild-caught older garters will go into brumation of their own accord. When
the weather gets too cold outside, they will stop eating and seek out the coolest place in
their tank to hide. Owners need to recognize this behavior and respond by 'cooling down'
their snakes. More about how that is done will be detailed below.
The major reason
why owners decide to brumate their garters voluntarily is breeding. It has been theorized
that garter snakes will not readily breed unless they go through brumation, and this is
especially important for more northern species. Southern species have been known to breed
without brumation, but a cooling period helps to stimulate such activity.
One of the
situations in which you would not brumate a snake is with the very young. Neonate snakes
are simply not strong enough to go through a brumation period, especially if you only have
one or just a few snakes. In the wild, these snakes den up with much warmer and more
numerous adults, so they are protected from the cold. A lone neonate may suffer from its
inexperience with brumation, so it is recommended that you wait until it is at least of
breeding age (1.5-2 years).
If you've decided to brumate your garter, there are several ways to go about it. The
easiest is if your snake brumates on its own. That way, it can choose its own time, and is
much less stressful for you as well. An owner should respond to a brumating snake by
turing off all heating fixtures in the tank, and greatly reducing the period of light the
garter receives. If you don't have a specific hide box inside your tank, you may want to
add one. A closed cave-like atmosphere is often welcomed by the snake. Be sure your snake
always has clean fresh water, but do not feed it until you see its activity level pick up.
This self-induced brumation can last anywhere from two weeks to about a month. After that,
you should start to reinstate heat and lighting in small increments over several days, to
slowly warm your snake up, just as a thaw would occur in the springtime.
For snakes that do
not initiate brumation, you get to pick the schedule of its cooling down. This should be
sometime during the winter. First, do not feed your snake for at least a week before
brumation starts. You need to be sure that its stomach and intestines are clear, because
once the digestive system shuts off, the food could rot and kill the snake. You can try
brumating your snake in its tank, as described above. If it won't take a hint, place the
tank closer to a cool area such as a garage, leaky window, or door to the outside.
(However, make sure the air stays relatively humid and don't expose your animal to cold
snaps!) Another method is to place snakes in a refridgerator. This is much more risky to
the snake, because it will be outside of its usual environment, and out of your immediate
sight as well. Snakes should be placed in a refridgerator not currently being used to
store food, and the temperature should be set somewhere from 50-40 degrees F to get things
started off. You can leave the snake in its tank if you have room, or place it in a large
plastic container with plenty of air holes, substrate, and fresh water. Speaking of air,
the refridgerator must be opened at least once a day to let fresh oxygen circulate in.
Warming the snake up again can be done by unplugging the fridge and leaving the door open
for increasing increments of time over several days. This will allow the temperature
inside to slowly rise to normal again.
Brumation is a
stressful time for both owners and snakes, as it seems that the animal's health is out of
your hands for a long time. Be sure to pay careful attention to your snake, give them
plenty of quiet and space, and make sure they have all of the essentials provided for
them. The brumation tips above are simply that: tips. I would not claim to be an expert on
the subject, and by providing this information take no responsibility for the fate of
animals belonging to those who use it. Brumate at your own risk, and best of luck!