The Snake Hibernaculum
A Winter Retreat for Snakes
By Don Scallen
Like many animals, snakes hibernate in winter. They need frost-free shelter in order to survive. This kind of site, known as a snake hibernaculum, is often rocky, with spaces between the rocks to permit access below the frost line.
Willow Park Ecology Centre's hibernaculum, constructed in 1998, is based on what we know of natural snake hibernation sites. Rocks and stumps were buried to provide refuge. The site is located on a south-facing slope to maximize sun exposure, because snakes, like other reptiles, bask in the sun to regulate body temperature. Not only does a hibernaculum offer reliable protection against winter cold, it is an important area for breeding. Mate selection is enhanced because numbers are concentrated at the communal site.
There is no guarantee that snakes will take up residence in the hibernaculum. Perhaps their finely-evolved instinct for survival will argue against some aspect of its construction. Perhaps a natural site nearby more closely fits their needs. We can't be certain because the science of artificial hibernacula is in its infancy.
The success of our hibernaculum does not depend on the occupancy of wintering snakes, although that would be wonderful. As an expression of a new attitude of acceptance and understanding, it may help snakes survive, and offers a valuable opportunity for public education. If visitors are prompted to ask questions about the hibernaculum and snakes, then its creation will have been a success.
We hope that the hibernaculum and the rest of the park will help foster a caring attitude towards snakes and all wildlife.