For those cold-blooded reptiles that call Alberta home, our winters are the perfect opportunity to slow their breathing and fall into a deep, deep sleep. Located mostly in the south of the province, the types of reptiles found here are few – only seven snake, one lizard and one turtle species.
Into the Snake’s Den
Prairie rattlesnakes, western hog-nosed snakes, bull snakes, yellow-bellied racers and three species of garter snakes: plains, wandering and red-sided can be found in Alberta. Only the wandering garter snake and the red-sided garter snake are found outside of southern Alberta.
Not all snakes winter in the same places. What makes the best winter home? In most cases, lots of friends and an underground den, or hibernacula, are ideal. Snake dens are usually located in rock crevices or caves, or small mammal burrows. The temperatures within hibernacula remain just above freezing during the winter because of the insulating effects of the earth.
Many snakes travel great distances from summer areas to these important overwintering sites – this suggests that these overwintering sites are not readily available.
Location, Location, Location
Hibernation sites are very important to snake survival, they are particularly vulnerable at this time and if the den is disturbed or destroyed during winter, snakes would likely die. If a den is destroyed in the summer, snakes wouldn’t be killed, but finding an alternate hibernacula site in time would prove to be difficult – it is likely that some snakes would not survive the winter. This is one of the reasons snake dens are protected under the Alberta Wildlife Act.
Whether they are hibernating or not, snakes in our province are vulnerable, often killed while crossing roads or basking on them for warmth. It is important for their survival that people are aware of popular snake crossings.
Meet the New Kid on the Block
It has been just two years since the yellow-bellied racer was discovered between a rock and a hard place in the southeast corner of Alberta. Further research will be required to determine the population of this snake in our province.
The short-horned lizard is endangered in Alberta. This little guy is only 6-8 cm in length and is found in southeastern Alberta in coulees, badlands and canyons. When they are ready to hibernate they make a shallow burrow in soft loose soil. In colder winters they count on a snow blanket for insulation for survival.
Slow and steady…
There are very few western painted turtles found in the province – they can be found in a handful of waterways in southern Alberta and have been introduced to the Milk River area. During the winter, they hibernate buried in the muddy bottom of a body of water that does not freeze to the the floor. They survive the winter months by breathing through their skin.
Hibernation is not a sprint, it’s a marathon. These reptile species will be safely tucked away for a few months waiting for the inevitable rise in temperature that signals the start of Spring and the cycle will start anew.