To Sleep, Perchance to Dream…
Reptilian brumation in south Louisiana.
By Ross Baringer
Alligators, snakes, and turtles; they are the three most common reptiles in Louisiana’s wetlands, but
for a few months each year the chance of spotting them in the wild decreases significantly, in many
cases dropping to almost zero. In the fall and winter months, especially from November to February
snake and gator sightings become particularly rare. Where they go and why can be attributed to a
survival skill developed millions of years ago.
Reptiles are extremely adaptive creatures, and the origins of their Class (Reptilia) date back to the
Carboniferous period, about 312 million years ago. (Such origins very likely took place in swamps.)
They have existed through several of our planet’s mass extinction events, and despite losing
countless species in each one (sorry, dinosaurs) the reptile class is almost twice as diverse as that of
the mammals. Reptiles have achieved this continuity by being extremely adaptive. They inhabit every
continent on the planet except for Antarctica, and yet every known modern species is cold-blooded
(or ectothermic if you want to sound smart.)
Being unable to produce their own body heat makes them extremely sensitive to climatic
fluctuations, so the species that inhabit regions with the greatest fluctuations have adapted a
behavior to survive problematic environmental conditions called brumation. Similar to hibernation
in mammals, brumation is a state of nearly suspended animation in which the animals physiological
functions slow to incredibly low rates. Most reptiles bromate in a place that insulates them
somewhat, like a burrow. Alligators spend their colder months bromating in holes they dig into the
muddy banks of the swamp.
However, this behavior doesn’t make it entirely impossible to see an alligator out and about in the
winter months. Temperatures in south Louisiana sometimes fluctuate greatly, and if the swamp
warms enough for a couple of days the reptiles that lie dormant may wake and reappear. Most of the
triggers that tell reptiles to bromate are external forces, temperature of course being the most
important. This is why even in the colder months when most Louisiana naturalists expect alligators
and snakes to be sleeping, it’s always wise to keep an eye out on warmer days. There’s always the off-
hand chance to spot a sleepy alligator trying to catch a few rays of sunlight during these shorter days.