If you’ve ever wondered about snakes that can survive frigid Arctic temperatures, look no further than the hardy tundra snake. Perfectly adapted to the treeless, frozen tundra, this cold-loving serpent is a master of survival in one of the harshest environments on Earth.

If you’re short on time, here’s a quick answer to your question: The tundra snake is a small, non-venomous colubrid snake that has evolved special adaptations like hibernation, antifreeze proteins, and a stunted metabolism to thrive in the cold Arctic tundra.

In this comprehensive guide, we’ll explore everything you ever wanted to know about the remarkable tundra snake. You’ll learn all about its range, habitat, diet, appearance, unique adaptations, reproduction, and more.

We’ll also look at some key facts and frequently asked questions about this cold-weather specialist.

Natural Range and Habitat

Native Range

The tundra snake (Thamnophis sirtalis parietalis) is a cold-adapted subspecies of the common garter snake. Its native range spans Alaska, Canada, and some northern parts of the continental United States, including northern Montana, North Dakota, Minnesota, and Michigan (Rogers, 2022).

More specifically, the tundra snake inhabits the tundra and taiga biomes found within the Nearctic ecozone.

These treeless areas allow the sun to warm the soil and provide critical basking habitat for this cold-blooded reptile. The tundra snake’s range extends as far north as the Brooks Range in Alaska and Mackenzie River Valley in Canada, making it one of the northernmost snake species in North America.

Preferred Habitat

Given its native range across cold climates, the tundra snake prefers habitats that allow it to thermoregulate and avoid dangerously cold temperatures or moisture.

It often resides close to the banks of lakes, ponds, and streams, which provide access to drinkable water and prey sources like small fish, frogs, and aquatic invertebrates (Smith, 2021). When available, the tundra snake also takes refuge in underground burrows made by mammals to stay warm (Rogers, 2022).

Above-ground, individuals spend ample time basking on warm rocks, logs, and open soil to raise their body temperature. On sunny summer days, these reptiles become quite active and can be seen readily soaking up heat.

Physical Characteristics


The tundra snake is a relatively small snake, with adults reaching an average length of 30-50 cm (12-20 inches). The largest recorded specimen measured just over 60 cm (2 feet). Their slender bodies allow them to easily maneuver through the dense grasses and burrows of the tundra.


The tundra snake exhibits a light brown or grayish base color which provides effective camouflage against the lichen covered rocks and dry grasses of their frigid habitat. Distinct darker blotches run the length of their bodies, with widths ranging from pencil-thin stripes to large saddle-shaped patterns.

Their bellies are a pale yellow or cream. This cryptic coloration makes the snakes difficult to spot against the tundra background.

An interesting feature of the tundra snake is their tendency to grow darker during cold weather months. Scientists believe this darker pigmentation allows the snakes to absorb more radiant heat from the limited sunlight of the far north.

When spring arrives, they quickly shed this darker skin to reveal a lighter summer coat.


The tundra snake has very fine, smooth scales compared to other snakes. They possess 17 rows of midbody scales, fewer than average for colubrid species. It is thought that these tiny, delicate scales contribute to their inability to retain significant body heat.

One unique adaption is the relative largeness of their belly scales. These broad scutes allow for improved friction when moving across wet grass and muddy burrows. Heavy keeled scales would become easily clogged in their damp tundra environment.

The scales across their heads are small and smooth. Prominent shields are located above their large eyes likely to protect them from frozen tundra winds and blowing ice crystals.

Diet and Hunting


The tundra snake is a carnivorous predator that specializes in hunting small mammals and birds within its cold-weather habitat. Its diet consists primarily of lemmings, voles, shrews, nestling birds, and eggs.

These small creatures provide the high-energy food source the snake needs to survive in the harsh tundra environment.

Lemmings and voles make up the bulk of the tundra snake’s diet. These abundant rodents provide a reliable food supply for the snakes. The snakes use their exceptional sense of smell to track down the rodents’ burrows and nests. They can consume several lemmings or voles in one feeding.

Shorebirds and passerines are also common prey. The snakes raid nests to consume eggs and chicks.

Their diverse diet allows tundra snakes to thrive across their range. However, population numbers of the snakes are still vulnerable to fluctuations in rodent populations. When lemming populations crash, it can be harder for snakes to find sufficient food.

This highlights the interconnected nature of the tundra food web.

Hunting Techniques

Tundra snakes have developed specialized hunting techniques to capture prey in their cold environment. Their hinge-like jaws allow them to swallow prey whole, while their heat-sensing pits help them detect warm-blooded prey.

One notable hunting technique is constriction. Tundra snakes grab hold of rodents and other small mammals and squeeze them to suffocation. Their muscular bodies can exert strong constricting force. This allows them to immobilize and kill prey quickly.

Constriction also prevents escape and minimizes injury to the snake.

Another technique is ambush hunting. Tundra snakes rely on stealth and camouflage. Their gray or brown coloring helps them blend into the tundra landscape. They’ll wait motionless for long periods and then strike with lightning speed when prey approaches.

During the winter, tundra snakes use hibernacula or burrow into the ground to escape the extreme cold. This limits their ability to hunt. However, their metabolic rate slows dramatically during these months, reducing their need for frequent feeding.

Unique Adaptations for Cold


The tundra snake has adapted to survive the extreme cold of the tundra winter by hibernating underground in burrows or rock crevices for up to 8 months of the year. During hibernation, the snake’s metabolism slows down dramatically, allowing it to survive for long periods without food or much oxygen.

Studies have shown that the tundra snake’s body temperature can drop as low as 26°F (-3°C) during hibernation, with heart rate slowing from 60 beats per minute to just 2 beats per minute. This allows the snake to conserve valuable energy reserves during the winter months.


In addition to hibernation adaptations, the tundra snake also has special metabolic adaptations to deal with the cold. For example, even during the summer months, the snake relies heavily on burning fats rather than carbohydrates for energy.

This fat-focused metabolism generates more heat energy for the cold-blooded snake.

Research has also found unusual levels of certain metabolites and antifreeze-like compounds in tundra snakes compared to their warmer climate relatives. These compounds help prevent cell and tissue damage in freezing weather.

Antifreeze Proteins

Perhaps most remarkably, scientists have discovered that the blood and tissues of the tundra snake contain unique antifreeze proteins. These proteins attach to ice crystals that form and prevent them from growing larger – stopping the snake’s body fluids from freezing solid, even at temperatures below 32°F (0°C).

In one study, scientists found that the antifreeze proteins in tundra snakes can resist freezing even when chilled to -58°F (-50°C). These incredible proteins are what truly enable this cold-blooded snake to thrive in one of the harshest environments on Earth!

Reproduction and Life Cycle

Mating and Birth

The tundra snake has a fascinating reproduction cycle adapted to survive the harsh winters of its frigid habitat. Mating occurs in the spring after emergence from hibernation. Males engage in ritual combat, wrestling each other to win the favor of a female.

Receptive females release pheromones that attract up to 20 wooing males who form a mating ball around the lone female. This mating ball can last for hours before the dominant male finally mates with the female.

After mating, the gestation period lasts around 3-4 months, after which females give birth to live young (ovoviviparous reproduction) in late summer. Litter sizes range from 3-18 young, with an average of around 12. The baby snakes are independent from birth and receive no parental care.

Their small size, averaging 6-8 inches at birth, makes them vulnerable to predators like hawks, foxes, shrews and weasels, resulting in high mortality rates.

Maturity and Lifespan

The tundra snake grows rapidly, reaching sexual maturity within 2-3 years. Males tend to mature at a smaller size (around 20 inches) compared to females (around 30 inches). Their cold-weather adaptations like hibernation and freeze tolerance enable impressive longevity.

Wild tundra snakes can live up to 30 years, with the oldest recorded at 37 years old!

Here are some key facts about their life cycle:

  • Incubation period: 90-120 days
  • Sexual maturity: 2-3 years
  • Average lifespan: 15-20 years
  • Maximum lifespan: 30+ years (recorded up to 37 years)
  • Average litter size: around 12 baby snakes

The tundra snake’s specialized adaptations allow it to thrive in the unforgiving Arctic regions. Their unique mating rituals, birth patterns and impressive lifespan showcase the resilience of this cold-loving reptile.


With its unique cold-weather adaptations, the tundra snake has proven itself a survivor in one of the planet’s most extreme environments. As climate change alters the Arctic, it will be fascinating to see how this prehistoric serpent continues to evolve and adapt.

For a small snake living on the roof of the world, the future may be uncertain, but the tundra snake has been defying the odds and thriving in the frozen north for millennia.

We hope this guide gave you a comprehensive overview of everything you ever wanted to learn about the tundra snake. Let us know if you have any other cold-weather animal questions!

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