Deep-Freeze Dinos: Why Oklahoma's "Alligator Popsicles" Practice Snorkeling for Survival

By Jemma BramsonLast Updated Apr 27, 2021 5:22:21 PM ET
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Photo Courtesy: ABC7Sarasota/YouTube

You've heard of frozen iguanas falling out of trees in Florida. But are you ready to discover something even stranger in the wild world of reptiles? The snorkeling alligators of Oklahoma would like a word. Residents of the Sooner State have been spotting gator snouts seemingly stuck in the ice that forms over ponds and lakes during winter.

While it might sound as though these crafty creatures are preparing for some sort of bestial synchronized swimming routine, these "alligator popsicles," as they’re affectionately called, are doing something much more practical: surviving frigid temperatures. As it turns out, some alligators spend their winters suspended in time with only their snouts above the frozen water in a bizarre form of hibernation — a strange occurrence that happens thanks to the alligators’ unique physiology.

What’s the Situation With Alligators in Oklahoma?

While we might not learn about it in grade school, alligators live beyond the humid Everglades and Southern swamplands. Alligators have actually made a geographical foray all the way into the south-central state of Oklahoma. While Oklahoma isn’t the first state most people would imagine having an alligator population, there is indeed a flourishing group of gators there. As far back as the 1870s, there have been reported sightings of alligators in southern areas of the state, and the Oklahoma Department of Wildlife Conservation now recognizes alligators as a native species.

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Photo Courtesy: Troy Harrison/Getty Images

There are plenty of natural bodies of water in Oklahoma that make suitable habitats for alligators, but there’s just one problem that the creatures don’t encounter in their habitats farther south: Oklahoma often sees freezing temperatures anywhere from October to April. Coupled with the occasional snowfall, that's more than enough time for cold temperatures to cause lakes and swamps — the Oklahoma gators’ habitats — to freeze over for weeks at a time.

This poses an interesting problem. Alligators are reptiles, so they’re cold-blooded. Warm-blooded creatures, like humans, maintain their necessary internal body temperatures regardless of the environment around them. But cold-blooded animals’ body temperatures increase or decrease based on the climate of their surroundings; these creatures can’t internally regulate the temperatures of their bodies and need the presence of some external warmth or coolness to do so. Even so, all animals have ways of maintaining some semblance of homeostasis — the ability to keep their bodily functions, such as temperature, within a range that the animals can survive in. During winter, alligators do this through a process called brumation, which is responsible for "alligator popsicle" sightings of snouts sticking through ice.

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What Is Brumation, and Why Is It in the Water?

When alligators stick their snouts out of the water, they’re not practicing for an epic scuba adventure. This is actually a fascinating technique they’ve adopted to survive freezing winter weather. Brumation is the alligator's physiological response to freezing temperatures. In other words, it's the way alligators keep themselves from freezing to death, and it’s sort of like reptilian hibernation.

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Photo Courtesy: Robert Loe/Getty Images

Brumation is a phenomenon in reptiles in which the animals enter a dormant state. They do not move, eat, drink or even relieve themselves during this period. While brumating, the reptiles experience a state of extreme sluggishness. Some reptiles go underground for brumation, and, as the evidence suggests, alligators are able to complete the process in a frozen lake.

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It’s important to note that there are some key differences between brumation and hibernation. Hibernation only happens in mammals, and brumation only happens in reptiles. Both hibernation and brumation occur during winter, and they both last for weeks. In hibernation, a mammal is completely asleep until it wakes up. In brumation, on the other hand, a reptile may wake up for brief periods, usually to get a drink, before returning to their state of sluggishness.

Brumation helps reptiles conserve energy and stay alive during the period of the year that would be most difficult to survive for animals that cannot warm their own blood. But in alligators, brumation doesn’t eliminate the need to breathe, which is why alligators position their snouts above the water. They can still access air, similarly to the way a snorkel works for a scuba diver.

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Alligator Popsicles Aren’t All That Common...

This particular brumation technique is not at all common for alligators. Even in Oklahoma, it’s rare for alligators to exist in environments where a body of water freezes for a long period of time. Alligators are native to the southeast region of Oklahoma, and this area doesn’t see freezing temperatures as often as the rest of the state.

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Photo Courtesy: ABC7Sarasota/YouTube

As cold-blooded animals, alligators look for the warmest parts of their environment in order to stay safe and healthy. In most cases, when an alligator needs to brumate, it does so by burrowing underground or heading to the bottom of a swamp — in the absence of ice, they often brumate completely submerged underwater.

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The rare circumstance when the surface of a body of water freezes over is the primary instance when alligators go into popsicle mode, sticking their snouts out for air. If the water surface is frozen, the frozen air outside of the water is even colder, and the ground will likely offer little warmth. In that case, the warmest part of the environment an alligator can brumate in is the relatively warm water underneath the frozen surface. But in order to breathe, an alligator allows just enough of its snout to be exposed to the cold temperatures above the surface.

...So Are the Alligators Safe?

If you’re feeling claustrophobic thinking about alligators trapped beneath the ice, you’ll be relieved to know that the creatures are completely safe leaving their snouts exposed to the environment. They’re undergoing a natural biological process, and they aren’t putting themselves at much risk.

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Photo Courtesy: ABC7Sarasota/YouTube

Baby alligators do have a few predators, like raccoons. Adult alligators, with their large teeth and vice-like jaws, however, don’t have many. In rare instances, adult alligators cannibalize each other, and human hunters are the only predators of adult alligators — hunters who are highly unlikely to venture out onto frozen water to capture a brumating reptile. Being in the center of a frozen body of water in the middle of winter also protects baby alligators from natural predators; many potential predators are either hibernating or staying clear of the slippery surface of the ice.

Because brumation is not as deep a sleep as hibernation, alligators can be roused from their sluggish state and defend themselves if necessary, although alligators are much more docile while brumating. In fact, conservationists can safely grab brumating alligators by their snouts to adjust their positions in frozen water. The alligators respond to the motion and may even wiggle around a little, but they don’t strike out or move to an entirely new spot.

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Alligator popsicles are a fascinating occurrence — but one that’s becoming less rare as time goes on. Alligators have begun entering popsicle mode more often as southern climates experience uncharacteristic snowfalls. In addition to Oklahoma, popsicle brumation has also been observed in Florida and North Carolina. Of course, alligators in those warmer climates have little reason to practice brumation this way during the average year. But it goes to show that alligators are incredibly resilient modern-day dinosaurs that continue demonstrating the unique ways they’re equipped to adapt to anything nature can throw at them.