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Snakes prepare for the winter

As October and cooler weather arrives, plants and animals in our region are preparing for the coming winter. Leaves are changing color and dropping off the trees, and birds are flying southward. One animal that can’t fly south though, is the snake. Snakes are cold-blooded, or heterothermic, so they cannot regulate their body temperature except by moving to warmer or colder places. Snakes cannot survive cold temperatures, so they have to hibernate.

Late September to early October is when most snakes in the region go down into their dens to hibernate. Some species such as rattlesnakes and garter snakes hibernate communally in the same den (called hibernacula). Snakes will seek a crevice, burrow, or other opening below the frost line for a den. When snakes hibernate, their metabolism slows and heart and respiration rates slow significantly.

What makes this time of year unique for spotting snakes is that they tend to spend more time foraging in order to build up more body fat to aid in the long winter hibernation. Also, because of the cooler weather, snakes spend more time on rocks, ledges, or paths basking in the sun in order to regulate body temperature.

If walking along a trail on a mild day, watch where you step, and keep your eyes peeled for some of these herpetological wonders.

TRR photos by Scott Rando
This timber rattlesnake uses the morning sun to its advantage as it warms up while basking on an east-facing ledge on a mountain ridge during late September. The slitted iris, or “cat’s eye,” indicates that it is one of two venomous snakes found in the region. (Click for larger version)
TRR photos by Scott Rando
A northern copperhead, another venomous snake in the region, uses the side of the road to warm up. Roads are like sun-warmed rocks to a snake, and many fall victim to motor vehicle traffic. Happily, this specimen was prodded off the road before it could fall victim to the same fate. This is another communal hibernator. (Click for larger version)
TRR photos by Scott Rando
This immature northern water snake, near a lake shore in Shohola, PA, appears lighter colored than an adult. The water snake feeds mainly on small fish and frogs, and favors shore habitat of a lake or wetland. It hibernates near the shore in a crevice or burrow. (Click for larger version)