A season for brumation
Have you ever wondered about where the reptiles go in the winter? I’m not talking about our reptiles here at the Zoo, although you may have noticed that our outdoor native species can be a lot less visible during the colder months of the year. I mean, do you wonder where the reptiles native to Georgia go during the winter? Many species practice brumation. Brumation is the ectotherm (cold-blooded) version of hibernation, where when the temperatures are too cold, they enter a period of sluggishness and inactivity. This often happens underground. For example, our gopher tortoises maintain burrows year-round, but during the colder months they don’t surface from their burrows as their bodies have shut down and entered brumation. This doesn’t mean you won’t see our gophers out on a very nice day in November, for example. When temperatures are high enough, they will come out to the surface to bask and then return to their underground oasis before it gets too cold.
Gopher tortoises are a great example of brumation in reptiles because they build extensive burrow systems which not only provide shelter, but also maintain fairly stable temperatures at their deepest points. This helps various other species because they will move in to stay safe during the winter as well – like indigo snakes and eastern diamondback rattlesnakes. Because gopher tortoises share their burrows with other species, they are incredibly valuable to their ecosystem, making them a keystone species. This means if gopher tortoises were to disappear, many other species would greatly suffer. Just think about it: Since snakes can’t exactly break out shovels to build burrows as nice as a gopher tortoise’s, where would they brumate, then?
Thanks very much for reading, and please be sure to come to take a look at the outdoor habitats at Georgia eXtremes at Scaly Slimy Spectacular in the spring or on sunny, warm winter days to see if you can spot a gopher tortoise soaking up the sun!
Keeper I, Herpetology