With winter coming to a close, it’s a good time to talk about what animals have been doing to stay warm during the cold season, specifically alligators. How do they do it without a warm mug of tea, fleece socks, and Netflix? (We just described with scientific nomenclature the method of winter adaptation in humans.)
Alligators are coldblooded and rely on their environment for temperature regulation. While hibernation is a common adaptation technique among warm-blooded mammals, alligators do not hibernate, they brumate, the reptilian equivalent of mammal hibernation.
Hibernation and brumation are both periods of dormancy where physiological processes decelerate in response to cold temperatures. Though closely related, hibernation and brumation still have marked differences, most notably the level of inactivity. During hibernation, mammals will fall into a deep sleep and they do not eat or drink. During brumation, reptiles do not fall into slumber and still have periods of activity (as you will read below with basking alligators). Though they do not eat, they continue to drink to avoid dehydration.
When alligators brumate, their metabolic rate slows down and they become lethargic. They cease eating and create mud holes for warmth and shelter. On warmer winter days, alligators will emerge to bask in the sun. Alligators have prominent ridges along their backs called scutes, bone plates that act as a heat conductor. The scutes contain blood vessels and as the sun warms the surface of the skin, the blood running through the scutes is warmed and distributed throughout the rest of the body, heating the alligator. When an alligator gets too warm while basking, he will open his mouth to dispel the heat.
In the case of our resident albino alligator, Alabaster, we slightly manipulate the temperature in his habitat from 80 degrees to 70 degrees to simulate the seasonal temperature change. He doesn’t eat much and is relatively inactive during this time. Due to his albino skin, Alabaster would not survive in the wild for numerous reasons, one of which being his inability to derive heat from the sun. Because his skin has no melanin, he would not be able to utilize his scutes for warmth without sustaining severe UV damage.
Brumation and hibernation usually last for about 4-5 months, starting in November and ending in late February. For humans, our winter adaptation starts sometime around Thanksgiving and ends in January, during which time we generally never stop eating.
Do they have Netflix in mud holes?