Found in North America, alligators inhabit the coastal regions of the United States, from Florida to North Carolina. Winters in these areas aren’t particularly harsh, but the weather is sometimes considerably cold. Frigid temperatures, snow, and ice determine many animals to go into hibernation. But what happens to the alligators? Do they hibernate or migrate in winter?
Do Alligators Hibernate?
Alligators do not hibernate in winter. However, they go into a lethargic state called brumation when the temperatures drop below 55°F. In this state, alligators remain aware of their surroundings and can move around. While they slow down their metabolic rate and don’t eat during this period, alligators continue to drink to avoid dehydration.
Alligators are reptiles, and as such, they don’t migrate. They don’t hibernate either, even if sometimes it seems like they do.
These semi-aquatic reptiles disappear in winter because they spend most of their time in a semi-dormant state, either in burrows in banks, lairs above the land, or even underwater lairs.
Like most reptiles, alligators go into brumation when the daylight temperatures drop to around 55°F.
Before going into dormancy, they start preparing for winter when the temperatures remain under 70°F constantly. At this stage, the alligators stop feeding and start digging the dens where they will spend their winter.
Alligator Brumation vs. Hibernation
Brumation and hibernation look alike, but they are actually different coping mechanisms animals use to survive harsh weather.
Hibernation is a behavior specific to some warm-blooded animals. In cold weather, hibernating animals go into a state of deep sleep that lasts throughout the winter.
To survive in this state, hibernating animals slow down their metabolic rate, heart rate, and body temperature. The heart rate can slow down by up to 95%, and in mammals with continuously growing teeth, the teeth also stop growing during the hibernation period.
While many warm-blooded animals hibernate during winter, many others don’t. For instance, many people believe that bears hibernate in winter. However, they only go into a state of torpor to conserve energy. Although they slow down their metabolic and heart rate, they wake up if their den becomes damaged, if they get thirsty, or if the temperatures are warm enough for them to look for food.
Hibernating animals don’t wake up at all throughout the winter, continuing their deep sleep even if the den becomes damaged or the temperatures warm a little. They will only wake up when spring returns.
Brumation is a behavior specific to cold-blooded animals. In cold weather, reptiles and amphibians go into a deep sleep that is similar to hibernation up to an extent but even more similar to the state of torpor some warm-blooded animals go into.
During brumation, most cold-blooded animals go into a deep slumber but remain active. They wake up to drink when thirsty and even go out of their dens in search of food if the temperature gets warm enough for them.
Unlike hibernation, which is a behavior specific only to some warm-blooded animals, brumation is mostly linked to the cold-blooded animal’s inability to regulate its body temperature. Reptiles and amphibians can’t keep their bodies warm, their temperature matching the environmental temperature.
The deep slumber and slow-down of the metabolic and heart rates allow reptiles and amphibians to survive winter.
By burying themselves under leaves or underground dens, they also manage to keep their bodies warm enough to prevent freezing. Some brumating animals even have the ability to stop their hearts and metabolism completely, letting their bodies freeze and coming back to life when their bodies thaw in spring.
Because brumation is more similar to torpor or dormancy, brumating animals often get out of their dens when the temperatures rise, whether or not the winter is over. This is why you can spot lizards basking in the sun on the warmer winter days only to find that they disappeared again when the temperatures dropped.
How Long Can Alligators Stay In Brumation?
Alligators stay warm in winter by burying themselves in burrows or lairs, either on the ground or underwater.
Alligators brumating above the ground can stay in brumation for four to five months. Those spending their winter underwater can also go without food for up to five months at a time. However, they still have to resurface constantly to get air.
If the temperatures get too low and the body of water starts to freeze, alligators brumating underwater remain submerged but stick their snouts out of the water. The lake or pond surface freezes around their snouts, allowing the alligators to breathe.
Apparently, alligators can stay in this position for days, waiting for the body of water to thaw.
These reptiles exit the state of brumation and start eating again when the temperatures rise above 70°F.
Where Do Alligators Go During Winter?
Alligators don’t go anywhere in winter. They remain in the same territory but retreat into burrows and dens.
Not all alligators spend winter in the same way. The burrows serve only one purpose – that of helping the gator stay warm. Some alligators prefer to lay in burrows dug into rivers, lakes, or pond banks. Others spend the winter in muddy lairs underwater. There are also alligators that spend their winters under layers of dead vegetation.
Those wintering underwater generally prepare their lairs in places where they can have access to an air pocket. While they can spend up to 24 hours without resurfacing, alligators breathe through their lungs and will need air sooner or later.
If they don’t have access to an air pocket, the gators wintering underwater usually have lairs close to the surface. In this way, they can stick their noses above water level when the pond freezes. At the same time, the muddy lairs keep their bodies warm.
How Far North Can Alligators Survive?
Alligators prefer warmer climate areas, but they can be found as far north as North Carolina and eastern Texas. Global warming could change that, though. Research suggests that alligators could expand their ranges and potentially adapt to more inland territories due to the rise in temperatures.
How Do Alligators Prepare For Winter?
While alligators don’t hibernate, they still spend their winters without food. So, how do they prepare to survive cold weather?
Contrary to popular belief – and contrary to what hibernating mammals do – the alligators’ primary concern isn’t food. When the temperatures start to drop, these reptiles start spending as much time as possible in the sun to gather warmth before the long winter.
In early spring, when they start leaving their dens, or during the warmer days throughout winter, the first concern alligators have is, once again, that of getting warm rather than finding food.
Most alligators start to lose interest in feeding when the temperatures are consistently below or around 70°F. Instead, they slow down their metabolic rates to preserve energy and spend their days basking in the sun.
At the same time, they also start looking for the perfect wintering spot. As explained above, they could dig burrows in banks or build an underwater or ground lair in a swampy area.
The temperature isn’t the only factor that determines alligators to slow down and look for a lair. As the winter approaches and the days become shorter, the reduction of daylight is the main cue that triggers alligators to prepare for winter.
As the temperatures go below 60°F, alligators start to retreat to the dens. They could still be active and leave their lairs on sunnier days, but they mostly remain still in their shelters. At around 55°F, the reptiles enter into brumation and appear to be sleeping. You should still keep your distance from them, but they are less likely to attack. This state lasts until the temperatures start rising again.
Alligators are cold-blooded animals. Hence, they don’t hibernate. However, they spend their winters in a state of brumation, which is similar to hibernation. The only difference is that they don’t fall into a deep sleep but remain active – albeit almost immobile – throughout the entire cold season.