The cold-blooded creatures normally rest during winter, said Kimberly Andrews, research coordinator for the Georgia Sea Turtle Center on Jekyll Island who also works with the University of Georgia's Savannah River Ecology Laboratory studying reptile and amphibian conservation.
For reptiles, such as canebreak rattlesnakes, that eat only a few times a year, winter rest — it's not the full hibernation of some mammals — is extremely important for energy conservation, Andrews said.
But when temperatures reach into the 70s, as they did 25 times in December and January on St. Simons Island, reptiles will come out of the holes where they had gone to escape what should have been cold weather. This uses up some of the energy they will need for spring and summer, Andrews said.
After several years of generally warm winters and erratic temperature changes, many of the animals have shown signs of changing their behavior, Andrews said. "We are seeing a lot shifts in activity."
Some frog species, for example, have actually shifted their breeding season to earlier in the year, because of weather patterns, Andrews said.
Other species, such as canebreak rattlesnakes, have started coming out of their winter holes to bask in a warm, sunny day.
If predator reptiles, such as snakes and alligators, begin changing their habits, Andrews says the entire ecosystem could see shifts in the competitive balance between predator and prey.
"It's completely, 100 percent temperature related," Andrews said. "Imagine if you're an animal and you don't have the option of choosing a scarf for a cold day or shorts for a warm day."
When one day is warm and the next day is cold, the instincts of many reptiles get confused, Andrews said, causing some animals to find themselves out in weather they normally would avoid.
Although more reptiles than usual may be out this winter, Andrews says encounters with humans will remain rare, because they will not likely be moving much to conserve energy.