garter snake

Slithering into fall: hibernation for Ontario’s reptiles

Today’s post was written by seasonal student Heather Van Den Diepstraten from Rondeau Provincial Park.

It’s not just students and birds on the move this fall.

As the cold weather approaches, reptiles are trekking across Rondeau Provincial Park in search of hibernacula (places in which wildlife overwinter). Researchers for Wildlife Preservation Canada are busy tracking the movements of snakes, turtles, and skinks within the park as they find suitable habitat for their hibernation.

Reptiles are cold-blooded, or ectothermic. That means that they cannot produce their own body heat.

So how do they avoid freezing in harsh Canadian winters?

The snakes of Ontario take refuge underground for the winter, often in large groups where they share their little remaining warmth. Five-lined skinks (Ontario’s only lizard) burrow similarly, also using rotten wood.

skink

Turtles dig deep into the bottom of wetlands and submerge themselves in the saturated soils below, slowing their metabolism and respiring through highly vascular skin.

Seem impressive? It definitely is! However, for these animals survival often hangs in the balance.

Reptiles are particularly sensitive to changes in microhabitat structure. Many factors affect the suitability of hibernacula. The site the animal chooses must remain within the correct temperature and humidity range for the entire winter. Solar orientation, depth, distance from water table, distance from frost line, ground material, and ground cover all contribute to the site’s suitability. Something as simple as removing woody debris or adding patio stones can destroy hibernacula for local animals.

These limitations mean that there are few appropriate sites for reptiles to choose from. If the individual cannot find a suitable site in which to hibernate, the animal will become dehydrated or freeze to death. If there are not enough sites for reptiles to overwinter, the population will suffer.

This is why we must take special interest in making sure our reptiles can make it to their hibernacula safely.

wildlife crossing sign

We humans try to help wildlife cross roads safely, construct artificial hibernacula, and continue to preserve the integrity of Ontario’s natural areas to ensure they have a better chance in surviving this winter.

Click here to learn more about how Ontario’s wildlife handles winter temperatures, or watch Rondeau’s “Nature Nugget” video series to learn more about the park’s biodiversity.