Do reptiles have families?

Happy Family Day!! 💚 

At Adopt-A-Pond we feel like a family, and we are happy to be a part of some reptile “families” and their journeys! 🐢  

Our Blanding’s turtle headstart program begins with different turtle clutches. Each clutch is a group of eggs hatched at the same time from one mother – like siblings 👪 These siblings grow up together at the Toronto Zoo, and after 2 years the siblings are released together in the wild!

The Adopt-A-Pond team releasing headstart Blanding’s turtles in the Rouge National Urban Park 

As far as we know, reptiles are quite independent from their relatives, even from the moment of birth there is not much parental care. BUT “family” can mean different things to different people, and maybe they can for reptiles too! 🐢🐍

Right now, reptiles are hibernating for the winter here in Ontario, Canada. While tracking our headstart Blanding’s turtles in the Rouge National Urban Park, we have noticed that many hibernate together in the same locations. This behaviour has also been observed in other freshwater turtle species.  

A study by Litzgus et al., 1999, showed Spotted turtles hibernating in groups, and called this “communal hibernation”. Why would turtles communally hibernate? One possible reason is that groups allow the turtles to find mates more easily when they emerge from hibernation in the spring. They may also use each other’s cues to emerge from hibernation at the same time.

We like the sound of a group wake-up call! 

A Spotted turtle. Photo taken by Joe Crowley.

Another reason turtles may hibernate together may be due to very few good hibernation sites existing in the area. This causes them to choose the same hibernating locations to access critical resources needed to successfully survive the winter.  

We are constantly learning more about reptiles, and the area of reptile behaviour largely remains a mystery, but recent work shows that snakes may be more social than previously thought! A 2020 study by Skinner & Miller showed that, within a group of garter snakes in captivity, individuals consistently picked certain snakes in the group to be close to. If the snakes were placed in different areas of the enclosure, they would return to their original snake groups or seek out specific individuals.

Who says you can’t choose your own family? 👪

Two garter snakes found during coverboard surveys by our Adopt-A-Pond staff 

Snakes have also been observed to communally shed their skin! Loughran, Beck, & Weaver, 2015, found groups of snake sheds from Northern Pacific Rattlesnakes at multiple sites. It could be that snakes use these skin sheds as a sign of safety for their own shedding. 

There is so much left to learn about the social behaviours of reptiles, and what a perfect day to share your knowledge with loved ones. Check out these great research studies to learn more:

Litzgus, J. D., Costanzo, J. P., Brooks, R. J., & Lee, R. E. 1999. Phenology and ecology of hibernation in spotted turtles (Clemmys guttata) near the northern limit of their range. Canadian Journal of Zoology, 77: 1348-1357. Retrieved from https://www.researchgate.net/profile/Jacqueline-Litzgus/publication/237218683_Phenology_and_ecology_of_hibernation_in_spotted_turtles_Clemmys_guttata_near_the_northern_limit_of_their_range/links/02e7e51e00c06efe4e000000/Phenology-and-ecology-of-hibernation-in-spotted-turtles-Clemmys-guttata-near-the-northern-limit-of-their-range.pdf 

Loughran, C. L., Beck, D. D., & Weaver, R. E. 2015. Use of communal shedding sites by the Northern Pacific Rattlesnake (Crotalus oreganus oreganus) in Central Washington State. Northwestern Naturalist, 96: 156–160. Retrieved from http://bgsa.unm.edu/about/loughran_etal_2015.pdf  

Morell, V. 2020. “Snakes have friends too”. National Geographic. Retrieved from https://www.nationalgeographic.com/animals/article/snakes-have-friends-adding-to-evidence-animal-sociability 

Skinner, M., & Miller, N. 2020. Aggregation and social interaction in garter snakes (Thamnophis sirtalis sirtalis). Behavioral Ecology and Sociobiology, 74: 1-13. Retrieved from http://www.millerlab.ca/uploads/3/1/9/5/31950795/2020_skinner___miller.pdf