Updated: January 11, 2022 by Jennifer Munsell
As a current or prospective reptile owner, you may have come across the strange word “brumation” and wondered to yourself: what is brumation, anyway?
Have no fear, dear herper! In this article, I will define brumation for you and explain the ins and outs of this incredible process that reptiles undergo every year.
In short, brumation is the natural process that reptiles go through when the weather turns cold and there is a lack of food and water in the wild. Even captive reptiles may slow their metabolism down and become almost completely inactive to survive this period.
Keep reading to find out why and how brumation occurs in nature, if you should encourage it in captivity, and what the benefits and possible repercussions of brumation are.
We are more familiar with the word “hibernation” than we are with “brumation,” but they are actually fairly similar behaviors. Hibernation is the process that mammals go through where they stock up on food, put on a lot of weight, and go to sleep for the winter months in a nice, warm, and insulated burrow or cave until spring starts and temperatures begin to rise once more.
You can think of brumation as the reptile version of hibernation! Reptiles cannot control their own body temperatures and rely on external temperatures to keep them warm enough to maintain their metabolism. Their metabolism is in charge of running their body’s functions such as digesting food and absorbing nutrients. As a result, they tend to eat a lot of food just before going into brumation for the winter, similar to hibernating mammals.
What Is Brumation in Wild Reptiles?
Brumation is a completely natural process for many reptiles, particularly those in the wild. As the temperature changes and the seasons turn, reptiles need to quickly adapt to their new surroundings to survive.
However, reptiles who live along the equator, such as boas and many species of iguanas, do not experience brumation naturally because there is no significant change in seasons in equatorial climates. Only reptiles who live in areas with cold, harsh winters tend to brumate.
Why Does Brumation Happen in the Wild?
Brumation happens amongst wild reptiles for two main reasons: because temperatures are too cold and because there is a lack of resources for reptiles to access in the winter. Let’s break these down in a bit more detail below.
Reason 1: Cold Weather
As the months grow colder, reptiles do not have access to the same ambient heat as they do in summer to maintain their bodily functions such as digestion, movement, and nutrient absorption.
Therefore, they slow their body down significantly in the winter to accommodate the lack of heat. They will typically find a nice, safe place that stays relatively warm and humid for those months and live in it. They will usually not move or even eat at all for several days at a time, though occasionally, they may emerge temporarily to eat and stretch their legs if temperatures fluctuate in the winter.
Reason 2: Resource Shortage
The second main reason for brumation in the wild is a lack of resources. Leaves fall off the trees and die off, and there is minimal to no fruit or vegetation being grown during this time. Therefore, folivores, herbivores, and omnivores do not have access to enough food to give them energy to carry out their daily routines.
Insects also go into hiding during this time, so omnivorous and carnivorous reptiles also cannot go out and hunt successfully. As a result, there is a serious lack of food, which means reptiles need to conserve their energy to survive. In many places, water sources also freeze over, which restricts reptile’s access to adequate hydration as well.
With these reasons in mind, it is understandable that reptiles seek out places that are warm, humid, and safe from predators to lie low in the winter months. Not all reptiles make it out of brumation every year, though, especially during particularly cold and harsh winters.
Outcome of Brumation in the Wild
Brumation is very hard on reptiles in the wild. As I mentioned earlier, many reptiles do not survive the process. It is common for them to develop illnesses because of parasites and bacteria. Additionally, many reptiles do not build up enough fat before the cold months, and they end up starving to death.
So, while brumation in the wild is completely natural, it is not a foolproof plan for survival. However, it does keep the majority of reptiles safe during the winter and prepares them for breeding in the following spring and summer.
The drop in temperature and brumation period also prepares the reptile’s body for the mating and breeding season, depending on their species. Males will start producing sperm, and females will ovulate. Some species will mate during early brumation or just before so their offspring are born in more favorable conditions.
Brumation in Captivity
Reptiles do not always have to brumate in captivity, though many will attempt to do so purely out of natural instinct. Some reptile owners will allow their reptiles to brumate, and some will not. Most reptile owners have personal reasons for whether or not they encourage brumation that form part of their husbandry practices.
To encourage brumation, you would need to know how long and when your specific species of reptile needs to brumate. Some species, such as leopard geckos, can be brumated anywhere from one to three months, while other species such as colubrid snakes need three months or more.
Changes in ambient temperature, humidity levels, and barometric pressure that are so small they are unnoticed by us, are major changes to reptiles, even for those in captivity. Research the area you stay in to determine when these changes start happening and align that with the research you have done on your species of reptile.
General Brumation Practices
During the couple of weeks leading up to the beginning of your planned brumation, you should feed your reptile a little bit extra at every meal. Including more fatty treats between meals will also help them build up healthy fat stores to maintain them through their brumation. It is normal and even healthy for your reptile to gain a bit of extra weight during this process.
It is a good idea to take your reptile for a check-up at the vet before you plan on brumating them. This will tell you if they have any bacteria, parasites, or fungal infections that will become a problem once their bodies weaken due to the brumation.
Brumation usually consists of dropping the overall temperature of the enclosure by a couple of degrees Fahrenheit, reducing the light portion of the photocycle, and reducing the amount of food you offer to your reptile.
Your reptile will pick a spot where they are comfortable and stay there, sometimes for days at a time without moving at all! This can be incredibly unnerving to first-time and even experienced reptile owners who allow their pets to practice brumation.
Your reptile should always have access to fresh water every day, even if they aren’t drinking much during brumation. It is essential to their health that they stay properly hydrated and have access to water when they decide it’s time to drink!
If you are worried they are not drinking enough, or start showing signs of dehydration, then you can soak them once a week in water that is the same temperature as the spot inside their enclosure that they were laying in.
Check your reptile’s weight every week and keep a record of it. This is so you can track their health closely and spot if they are getting sick.
When you put your reptile into brumation or take them out, you need to do so gradually and watch them carefully for any signs of stress, illness, or injury. Any sudden changes in temperature can shock your reptile severely.
Reasons for Brumating Your Reptile in Captivity
It is not essential that you brumate your reptile pet. Because captive reptiles do not face the same pressures as they would in the wild with the drop in temperature and the lack of food, they would be perfectly healthy all year without being brumated.
However, there may be some reasons that you do end up brumating your reptile. Let’s look into them in a bit more detail below.
Reason 1: Breeding
For reptiles that do undergo brumation in the wild (i.e. not ones that come from equatorial or tropical climates), the drop in temperature is a signal to their bodies to get ready to reproduce.
Male reptiles will start producing sperm and become very territorial. Females, on the other hand, will start ovulating and searching for the best place to nest. If you have a female reptile that you are brumating, research what their nesting practices are so you can provide for them.
Some reptiles need a humid, moss-covered box in which to brumate, while others will need a box of sand that they can dig in. Their needs are entirely species dependent. Other species, for example, will actually mate during the brumation period or right before so their offspring are born in the spring, which would mean increased temperatures, easy access to water, and plenty of food, which would give them the best chance of survival.
However, many breeders say that as long as their reptiles are healthy, they breed without a brumation period as long as their mating rituals are followed or the males and females are left in the same enclosure for long enough.
Reason 2: Mimicking the Natural “Flow”
Many reptile enthusiasts will brumate their reptiles because they believe in following the natural “flow” of a reptile’s life as closely as possible. They will maintain the enclosure so that it mimics the change of season as closely as possible so their reptiles can enjoy a life that is as “natural” as possible.
Reason 3: Your Reptile Made the Choice for You
Sometimes, the subtle changes in the environment such as the amount of light reaching their enclosure from a window or the barometric pressure is enough for your reptile to instinctively put themselves into brumation, even if their enclosure settings stay the same year-round.
If this is the case, do some urgent research and help them through the process. You will need to keep a careful eye on your pet’s weight if you haven’t had enough time to offer them more fatty, nutritious foods to boost their fat stores in preparation for brumation. Some reptiles will emerge from brumation from time to time to eat and drink, while others will remain completely dormant for many days or weeks at a time.
The Potential Benefits of Brumation
Brumating your reptile with the intent to breed will yield a higher chance of success. Reptiles’ bodies have evolved to pick up on very subtle environmental signals when it comes to breeding. If you brumate your reptile, then the success rate of breeding as well as the number of offspring will generally be higher.
Some breeders and reptile enthusiasts also believe that brumating your reptile will help it live a longer lifespan than if it was not brumated regularly. However, there is no significant scientific research to back up either argument.
The Potential Risks of Brumation
Brumation, whether it takes place in the wild or in captivity, is not without risk. Sometimes, reptiles simply do not have enough fat storage to make it through the brumation period and end up starving to death, even if you offer them food.
If your reptile has a mild bacterial, fungal, or parasite infection or infestation before they begin to brumate, then it will almost certainly become worse while they are brumating and pose a serious risk to their overall health. Other health issues like metabolic bone disease or respiratory infections can also quickly kill reptiles in brumation.
FAQs About Reptile Brumation
What is brumation in bearded dragons?
Brumation in bearded dragons is essentially the same process as that of any other reptile. During the colder months of the year, they will experience a reduced amount of activity. This means that they will move around less, eat less, and overall be less energetic and responsive than usual.
Bearded dragons can brumate naturally if they experience an ambient temperature drop, even if you do not brumate them intentionally. Many owners report that their beardies brumate for anywhere from three to six months each year!
If I do not brumate my reptiles, will they have a shorter lifespan?
Many reptile owners are on the fence about this question, and it is the subject of much debate amongst the reptile-owning community.
Some owners are of the opinion that brumation does not affect the lifespan of the animal and that not brumating your reptile will not affect how long it lives. The argument for this is that reptiles mainly brumate in the wild because of lack of resources, not to extend their lives.
Other reptile enthusiasts believe brumating your reptile will help extend its lifespan. The argument for this is that it happens naturally and should be encouraged and that giving their reptile’s digestive system a break is healthy.
It is ultimately up to you to make that decision depending on your level of experience with reptiles and your ability to maintain them. However, there is currently no hard evidence that fully supports either side of the argument.
Can I handle my brumating reptile?
You will need to occasionally gently handle your brumating reptile to check on its weight and to clean its enclosure. Many reptile owners who practice brumation also give their reptiles a soak in warm water once a week to help maintain hydration.
However, you should not handle your reptile for reasons other than hygiene and health checks during this time. Avoid disturbing them as much as possible to allow them to safely brumate.
At what age should I start to brumate my reptiles?
Hatchlings and young juveniles generally should not be brumated, as they do not have enough fat stores to last them and may stunt their growth. However, this is species-specific. Some snakes, for example, will only start eating once they have undergone their first brumation!
You will need to do specific research on the type of reptile you have to decide if and when you should start brumating them.
What month should I start brumating my reptile?
There is no ‘one-size-fits-all’ answer to this question because everyone lives in a different climate! Certain reptiles also need to be brumated differently according to their own species’ requirements.
Therefore, you will need to research your reptile’s brumation needs specifically. You can also speak to the breeder you got your reptile from for additional guidance and support.
A Final Word on Brumation
Whether you are a believer in the brumation of captive reptiles or not, you are now prepared for any outcome, even if your pet goes into brumation on their own.
In the wild, reptiles undergo brumation so they can conserve energy and prepare for breeding. In captivity, brumation is largely the owner’s choice; however, sometimes your reptile will make that decision for you, and you’ll need to play catch up.
Remember, research is the key to the success of your brumating reptiles!