What’s the hype on hibernacula? The importance of snakes in backyard ecosystems

What’s the hype on hibernacula?

The importance of snakes in backyard ecosystems

What’s the hype on hibernacula?

The importance of snakes in backyard ecosystems

By Emily Jerome, Digital Engagement Assistant, National Environmental Treasure

You may be afraid of snakes, but they play an important role in ecosystems. And you can help support these species in your own backyard.

As the last of the fall leaves flutter to the ground and the air starts to feel more crisp against our skin, we prepare ourselves for the annual shifting of seasons. We trade our shorts, sun hats and sandals for warm jackets, toques and boots. We may stock up on tea and brew mulled cider while cooking up chili and stews on the stove. The shorter days lead us to find new ways of keeping busy or reaching for things of comfort. While we are busy transitioning for the upcoming winter season, other members of our wider environmental community are preparing for a long winters’ rest.

If you’re thinking of bears, think again! I’m talking about a much smaller animal that stealthily slides amongst the grasses and might give you a fright while gardening. If you are now thinking of snakes, then we are on the same page.

scientific illustration of eastern ribbon snake and plant
Photo via Biodiversity Heritage Library. (CC BY 2.0)

So, what is the hype on hibernacula?

During the fall, snakes seek refuge under rocks, in caverns and abandoned animal burrows. These winter dens, called hibernacula (singular: hibernaculum), allow the snakes to live below the freezing line. Snakes are cold-blooded, or more properly known as ectothermic, therefore they rely on external sources to heat their bodies. As you can imagine, it would be nearly impossible for snakes to stay warm throughout Canadian winters. Incredibly, snakes intuitively know that they must find a cozy spot before they turn into a snake popsicle.

Hibernacula provides a safe place for snakes to lower their metabolism and be less active. This process is known as ‘brumation’ (as opposed to hibernation). Hibernacula are often shared by many snakes of different species. If you’ve heard of Narcisse, Manitoba, it’s probably because of the exceptionally large hibernaculum occupied by red-sided garter snakes. It’s estimated that this hibernaculum hosts up to 70,000 snakes. This may not be the classic image of cuteness, but there is something endearing about sharing body heat to survive the seasonal temperature plunge.

Snakes lending a helping hand in backyard ecosystems

This talk of snakes may make you squeamish and give you goosebumps, but snakes aren’t the menacing creatures that we often see on TV. Most species in Canada are shy, elusive and pose no threat to humans. You’ll often hear them dart through the underbrush before you see them, as they seek cover from us two-legged giants. If you’re lucky enough to get a close look, you might notice that many snake species have a dainty charm to them. 

Eastern garter snake in fall leaves
Eastern Garter Snake. Photo by mirceax via Getty Images/Canva.

Snakes are not only an integral part of our Canadian ecosystems, but wonderful garden helpers. To those of us whose garden is a labour of love, our nightmares are filled with slugs heedlessly munching away at our delicate greens.  Luckily, one of Canada’s most widespread snakes, the Common Garter Snake, finds these slugs a dining delicacy. Snakes also enjoy eating rodents, snails, insect larvae, centipedes and other invertebrates. Through their appetites, snakes help control pest populations in our backyards.

Sometimes, it’s hard being a snake

With over 20 native species in Canada, snakes contribute greatly to our biodiversity and ecosystem stability. Snakes play both the predator and prey role. They make for a healthy snack for hawks, eagles, weasels, foxes and more. They also help control pest populations as we already learned. Snakes also act as ‘ecosystem engineers.’ Rodents eat plant seeds, then snakes eat the rodents. This makes snakes secondary seed dispersers, helping plants find new places to grow. But snakes still experience some challenges. They face the repercussions of loss of habitat, habitat fragmentation and loss of hibernacula sites. Without snake species, a piece of the ecosystem puzzle would be missing and there would be a ripple effect throughout the environment.

Be a friend to snakes

Despite the challenges that snakes face, there are many ways that you can be a friend to snakes. One such way to support snake populations is to avoid pesticide use in your yard. Snakes can be directly harmed from pesticides. They also depend on creatures that we consider pests for food. If you have a healthy population of snakes, they can act as a natural alternative to pesticides.

You can also create a safe place for snakes to den in your own backyard. The Toronto Zoo created a guide on how to create your own hibernaculum. If this is too ambitious for your backyard, you can instead add a pile of rocks, decaying logs and branches. This provides snakes with shelter and places for sunning. Snakes like a nice warm place to soak up the sun just like us!

Consider leaving patches of your backyard in a natural state. Not only is it less maintenance for you, but it provides snakes with more habitat. You can also achieve a more natural backyard by growing shrubs and trees that are native to where you live. As we cozy up for winter, consider providing a cozy place for our snake community members to rest through the chiller months. 

Fallen logs in forests make great snake habitat
Fallen logs make for great snake habitat. Photo by Anastase Maragos on Unsplash.