Conservation Sustainability

Sustainability: Hibernating This Winter? No, Just Brumating

Hibernating This Winter? No, Just Brumating

Red Belly Snake. Photos by Steve Atkins of Fox Cove Photography

By Winslow McCrory Umberger

While brides are busy ruminating over wedding details this winter, our area’s reptiles will be languorously brumating. This is not an exotic spa treatment, but rather the hibernation-like state cold-blooded animals enter into in winter. By mid-November, most of our reptiles are dormant, out of sight, hunkered down in burrows or safe hiding places—a state likely coveted by partners desirous of escaping wedding preparations.

“In this semi-conscious state, which is the reptilian version of hibernation that warm-blooded animals go through, they do not eat, drink, defecate or move,” says Savannah Trantham, co-founder of Appalachian Wildlife Refuge. “Their metabolisms slow to a bare minimum.”

Turtles, of which there are 21 species in North Carolina, tunnel into leaf litter, mulch, loose soil or burrows created by other animals to spend the winter months. The most common in this area are eastern box turtles—our state reptile—and common snapping turtles. Eastern painted turtles, mud turtles, musk turtles and several sliders are encountered here as well. Aquatic turtles bury themselves in leaf debris or sandy bottoms of the water systems they live in. Yes, under water! They survive months under water by, in simple terms, oxygen exchange through their bloodstreams. There are some species that bask in the sun year-round, however.

Eastern Painted Turtle

Snakes generally find or create a burrow-like area in soft soil or leaf debris. They may also take refuge in dwellings or similar structures during the winter months. While it may be disconcerting to happen upon a sleeping snake in your cellar, odds are it is non-venomous. There are 36 species native to North Carolina, only two of which are venomous in WNC.

How can you tell if it is venomous? “Pattern identification is the surest way to tell, but keep in mind that just because it has a pattern, it doesn’t mean it’s venomous,” says Trantham. “Non-venomous snakes have round pupils; venomous snakes have vertical ones. You probably would eschew a face-to-face encounter so check out the head. If it is heart-shaped, it is likely venomous.” Let the (non-venomous) sleeping snakes lie; come spring, you’ve got free pest control.

Eastern Box Turtle hatching out of its shell

“Reptiles become active when the temperature rises, about late March/early April,” says turtle rehabilitator Mischa McPeeters. “This is when both wild animals and humans become active, sometimes to the detriment of the former. Cars, lawn mowers and weed eaters can cause shell fractures and injuries to the head and limbs so people just need to be alert to their presence. If you see a turtle crossing a road, help protect it by moving it 20 feet off the roadside—always in the direction it was heading.”

With warmer weather, there is a rise in wild animal emergencies. “Two thousand wild animal injuries are anticipated this year,” says Trantham. “This inaugural year at our triage center is expected to be a busy one.” For now, those hibernating—or brumating—will largely be out of harm’s way. This survival tactic, however, can’t help the partner looking to evade wedding planning. He (or she) will need to find another way

Appalachian Wild is a 501(c)(3) organization providing aid to our forest friends as well as support for North Carolina’s volunteer wildlife rehabilitators. Find out more at


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