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Across the vast continent of North America temperatures have plummeted.  As I write this, sub-zero winds sweep across the Great Plains. Buffalo is seemingly gone–buried beneath uncounted tons of lake-effect snow.  Obviously, with all of this November cold, Americans are obsessed with one question:  what happens to snakes in the winter?

This seems somehow wrong.

This seems somehow wrong.

Snakes live in places that get very cold during the winter, yet the poor reptiles are cold-blooded and can’t be slithering around in snow and ice.  In fact, considering that their bodies become the same temperature as their surroundings, how do they avoid becoming snakecicles?  What happens to them when the mercury dips?

Technically speaking, snakes (and other reptiles & amphibians who live in climes which turn cold) do not hibernate—they brumate.   Brumation is a different sort of metabolic dormancy than mammalian hibernation, but there are many similarities. When reptiles go dormant, their breathing and heart rate drop to almost nil.  Brumating reptiles do not eat (or produce waste)—though they wake up occasionally from their dormancy to drink water.

Garter Snakes dormant in a hibernaculum

Garter Snakes dormant in a hibernaculum

As temperatures dip in autumn, temperate reptiles get all Roman and they seek out a hibernaculum—a sheltered environment which protects them throughout the winter. Hibernaculums are usually deep within the ground in holes, crevices, and burrows which reach beneath the frost line.  Certain species of snakes brumate together to share trace warmth.  Just imagine a colony of hundreds of little garter snakes in suspended animation beneath a snow covered rock wall in that picturesque New England snowscape!

Wait, where are the snakes?

Wait, where are the snakes?

Although it is not exactly the topic of this post, amphibians and aquatic reptiles also brumate—sometimes underwater or deep within the wet mud at the very bottom of ponds and lakes! The turtles, frogs, and newts take in sufficient oxygen through their skin to stay alive in their deeply reduced metabolic state—although they occasionally wake up from their torpor and swim about. An indelible memory of my childhood is seeing some little newt swimming beneath the ice of the frozen cranberry bog which I was standing on!

When spring comes and temperatures become warm enough, the snakes depart from their underground dens and sun themselves until they have sufficient energy to become active. Of course some reptiles live in such wintry locations that they have very little summer.  There are snakes (like northern rattlesnakes) which brumate 8 months out of the year!  Scientists believe that this prolonged dormancy allows the snakes to live longer—like an automobile turned off in a safe garage.

Garter snakes awaken en masse in the spring

Garter snakes awaken en masse in the spring

An agricultural billhook

An agricultural billhook

A billhook is a sort of agricultural/forestry tool which was used for pruning vines, fruit trees, and shrubs.  It consisted of a heavy blade which twisted into a cruel sharpened steel hook (like a parrot’s bill), all of which was, in turn, attached to a wooden handle—or sometimes to a long staff for pruning hard to reach branches.  At some point in the late middle ages, it was noted that this alarming tool could be used to prune a wider range of targets than just unruly fruit trees: suddenly the billhook evolved into a sinister polearm (admittedly, the Chinese had some similar cavalry hooks, but we are talking about the European/English bill in this article).

A bill as a weapon

A bill as a weapon

The bill was a powerful weapon with the range of a spear and the brute chopping power of an axe. It could be used like a pike to stop a cavalry charge (or hack/stab swordsmen before they reached the wielder) it also had a hook to snatch horsemen from their mounts or take enemy combatants’ legs out from beneath them.

Early Tudor soldiers by Angus McBride; Two Billmen and an archer

Early Tudor soldiers by Angus McBride; Two Billmen and an archer

The bill came to prominence in the 14th and 15th centuries as the Middle Ages waned. Soldiers using bills were called billmen and usually wore chainmail or plate armor.  Often they also wore sallets, the helmets of the day, which could be open faced or have visors. Generally billmen also were attired with colorful tabards over their armor (often with all sorts of heraldic emblems) and bright tights or leggings.  High status soldiers would have big dyed feathered plumes on their helmets.  These were some impressive & flamboyant foot soldiers!

Billmen reenactors

Billmen reenactors

In continental Europe the early 16th centuries saw armies moving towards the pike and the arquebus (a sort of nightmarish early musket), however the English preferred to rely on the rapid fire of their hallowed longbow.  And for infantry, they still favored bills over pikes—a choice which turned out to be a good one.  In the Battle of Flodden, which occurred in 1513, an army of approximately 26,000 English billmen chopped apart a larger army of Scottish pikemen.  The Scottish king, James IV was hacked apart right along with his soldiers and was the last monarch of the British Isles to die in glorious combat (so far).

Battle of Flodden--The Death of James IV (Stephen G. Walsh, watercolor)

Battle of Flodden–The Death of James IV (Stephen G. Walsh, watercolor)

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