If you own a reptile, you have probably picked up on a behavioral shift in your pet as the summer months wind down and fall approaches. It might appear to you that they are entering hibernation, which is partly true, but there is another name for this in the reptile world – Brumation.
Reptiles Brumate. This is equivalent to hibernation in mammals and sees a reptile’s metabolism slowing as the shorter months approach, causing it to seek out a warm safe place to shelter while its body rests in preparation for the following spring.
The term brumation comes from the Latin word ‘brūma ’ which essentially translates to ‘midwinter’ or ‘winter solstice’ and was first introduced by American zoologist Wilbur W. Mayhew in 1965 when describing the Horned Lizard. So what does brumation entail compared with regular hibernation as we know it and what should you do when your pet brumates? Read on to get these answers and more…
What’s the Difference Between Hibernation and Brumation?
Both hibernation and brumation refer to a period of rest and inaction in which an animal’s metabolism, respiratory system, heart rate, and body temperature all wind down, but hibernation is done by endothermic or warm-blooded animals such as humans, bears, and rodents.
Whereas brumation is done only by ectothermic or cold-blooded animals like reptiles and amphibians and the main difference between the two is that brumating animals do not enter a true deep sleep as hibernating animals do – instead they enter dormancy and take a rest but they may still be active i.e. come out to bask in the sunlight before returning to their hideaway.
Below is a quick comparison of hibernating and brumating animals:
|Some activity during||Completely inactive|
|Store energy in fat and lipid form||Mainly use stored fat for energy|
|Continue to drink water||Stop drinking water|
|Cease eating||Cease eating|
|Feed heavily beforehand||Feed heavily beforehand|
|Intolerant of low oxygen||Tolerant of oxygen loss|
|Rest (not sleep) occurs||True sleep occurs|
What Reptiles Brumate?
Reptiles that enter brumation include:
- Corn snakes
- Green tree frogs
- Bearded dragons
- Painted turtles
- Box turtles
- Leopard geckos
- Crested geckos
- Milk snakes
- Garter snakes
- Russian tortoises
Other reptile species can brumate and not all do so in captivity, so it’s important to ask your local vet or consult a reptile expert to find out whether you should expect your pet lizard, snake, or tortoise to brumate.
What Reptiles Don’t Brumate?
Snakes and lizards from more temperate climates often won’t spontaneously brumate as they do not experience temperature drops significant enough to signal a physiological change. You may find that the majority of reptile species brought home from the pet store are unlikely to brumate at all.
Brumation occurs in the wild more often than in captivity as it is associated with breeding, but it’s important to note that one reptile species that insists on brumating in captivity is the Bearded dragon.
What Causes Brumation?
The change in season from summer to fall brings shorter, darker days and a drop in temperature which prompts cold-blooded reptiles to seek a warm, safe spot to hide. Reptiles do this because they cannot regulate their own body temperature in the way that mammals can and they have evolved with this survival tactic of finding the warmest place to rejuvenate when climates turn cold.
Reptiles have done this for millions of years in the wild by making burrows 6 feet deep underground. Being cold-blooded doesn’t in fact mean their blood is cold, but rather that they rely on surrounding temperatures to feel warm, I.e. bathing in the sun to raise their body temperature
Where Do Reptiles Brumate?
In the wild, reptiles brumate in their natural habitat and get their cues to enter brumation from the shorter day lengths and the changes in humidity and air pressure. They will then create burrows beneath the ground to stay warm.
In captivity, meanwhile, reptile brumation can be controlled by you the owner, and the environment you keep them accustomed to. Some captive reptiles will show signs of brumating and it is recommended that some species – such as snakes – undergo this change, whilst others exhibit none at all. It all depends on the species and how controlled their indoor environment is.
Controlled brumation is only really possible if your home is kept at consistent temperatures and your pet has no access to natural sunlight, as this will give them signals as to when the days shorten and the temperatures drop.
When Do Reptiles Brumate?
Reptiles typically enter brumation around the end of September when Fall begins and daylight hours begin to wind down.
How Long Do Reptiles Brumate for?
On average most reptiles will normally brumate for around 2 to 3 months, although some species may only brumate for as little as a few weeks or all the way up to 4 months.
There is no standard length that all reptiles follow and the length of brumation really depends on the reptile’s geographical habitat, the average annual temperatures in that region, the reptile’s age and sex, etc.
What Happens During Brumation?
Reptiles essentially stop many of their usual activities as if they are entering a long, deep sleep (even though they do not truly sleep like mammals do in hibernation). In this period of dormancy, they stop eating and digesting and their heart rate slows down.
They occasionally emerge to drink water, but they will go without food for several months and enter a long phase of rest to ensure their bodies are refreshed in time for the temperatures to rise again. As well as an evolutionary survival response, many reptiles brumate in preparation to breed, since cooler temperatures encourage sperm production in males and ovulation in females.
What Are the Signs of Brumation?
The first indications of brumation in your reptile are that they have become more lethargic and may show a lack of appetite or response to the food you provide. They may also begin to sleep more or appear sleepy much earlier than before.
Here are the common signs that brumation is on the horizon:
- Decreased appetite
- Not drinking
- Barely moving
- Barely interacting with you
- Pooping less
- Hiding in a shady spot
- Sleeping earlier in the daylight
Lower energy levels don’t always point to brumation, so for the sake of their health, be sure to rule out whether a lack of UVB light, correct temperatures, or a growth spurt is responsible first before you stop feeding them.
At What Age Do Bearded Dragons Brumate?
Bearded dragons normally begin brumating when they are between 10 months and one year old.
Should I Feed My Bearded Dragon During Brumation?
You can certainly try. Your bearded dragon’s appetite will decrease gradually so continue to place food in their enclosure and see how they respond to it. As their metabolism slows down more and more during brumation, they won’t require the energy that food provides.
Keep offering them food around once a week during brumation, but don’t force them to. They will eventually reject it altogether. Once the brumation period is over, you can expect your Bearded dragon to regain their appetite within 2 weeks or so.