Alligators do a weird thing when temperatures drop. While many onlookers might confuse these sharp-toothed reptiles for being dead, what they’re actually doing is called brumating.
Brumation is a sort of hibernation that cold-blooded animals make use of when it gets freezing.
A bomb cyclone hit the USA’s East Coast last week, unloading heavy snow as far south as Florida, and unleashing a torrent of icy temperatures on what are usually warm and humid swamps.
People passing by North Carolina’s Shallotte River Swamp Park saw the snouts of living dinosaurs stranded amid frozen water, as if they were stuck. Of course, they were doing it all on purpose.
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The park described the conditions as a “freeze like no other” and said it allowed them to show their followers how adaptable the alligators were to the severely cold climate.
Brumating alligators slow down their metabolism and their breathing, resulting in a semi-vegetative state. Just before the surface freezes, they stick their snouts out of the water so they can continue breathing for the duration of the cold.
George Howard, the park’s general manager, was one of the first to notice how the 10 alligators were surviving in the icy water.
“They have been around for millions of years,” he said of the alligator species. “They are one of the only species in existence that is virtually unchanged. And they continue to be good at just surviving. This is just another example of how tough they are.”
Brumating animals don’t move much, and their body processes slow down so much that they don’t even digest food. So the park’s alligators will stay there, seemingly frozen in the ice, until it gets warm.
When that happens, the apex predators will be moving around again as normal, which Howard plans to record that.
When it’s cold but not icy, the alligators disappear, sinking to the bottom of the swamp for most of the day or burrowing into the mud, Howard said. “You don’t see them, but they’re under there.”
Alligators aren’t the only reptiles that sink into a lower metabolic state when it gets cold. Turtles also reduce their activity level when the temperature drops. They get air through cloacal respiration, by moving their body across water, and filtering the oxygen to the most vascular part of their body: their butts.