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Cold Blooded Creatures

Cold Blooded Creatures Step into the world of a herpetologist at the Virginia Living museum and meet Kortney Jaworski who cares for the museum's many cold-blooded creatures!

What You Should Know About Keeping Reptiles & Amphibians as Pets

Any reptile or amphibian owner will tell you how amazing these animals are. However, a lot goes into keeping them happy and healthy under human care. Here are some things to know before you bring your new pet home!

Picture of a bearded dragon.

Bearded dragons make great pets, even for beginners!

Things to consider:

Housing: One of the great things about keeping reptiles and amphibians is how little space they take up in your home. Unlike a dog or a cat that needs the whole house to run around, a frog or a snake only needs its tank. However, since your pet is going to be spending a majority of their life in a tank it’s important to make sure it’s a place where they can thrive. This means finding your species’ minimum tank size as well as providing them with the correct substrate, hides, a water dish, plants, and more.

Climate Requirements: Reptiles & amphibians can be found on every continent except Antarctica. With such a wide range of climates, it goes without saying that what one species needs to survive may not be what another species needs. In human care, we can emulate these different climates using heating elements such as heat lamps or heat mats to increase the temperature as well as using spray bottles or automatic misters to increase humidity. When considering which type of pet you want, do your research to find what temperature and humidity requirements they have and make sure you can maintain those conditions appropriately.

Diet: Reptiles & amphibians eat a wide range of foods including fresh fruits and vegetables, fish, live insects, or frozen/thawed rodents depending on species. Most will also require the supplementation of vitamins and minerals in their diet as well. If your animal eats insects or rodents this means that you must be comfortable with the fact that you will be keeping live insects inside your house or dead rodents in your freezer before feeding.

Lifespan: Many species can live a surprisingly long time. Some pets such as tortoises & turtles live 50-100+ years. Even a small dart frog can live up to 15 years! Choose a pet that you are willing to support for the entirety of their lifetime.

Species temperament/handleability: Some pets are more tolerant of being handled than others; some can even get sick from being handled improperly. For example, it’s recommended to handle amphibians as little as possible and only do so with gloved hands. However, bearded dragons are known for being laid-back, docile, and easy to hold, while chameleons are known for being moody, extremely sensitive to their surroundings, and prefer to be left alone. Keep this in mind when choosing your pet and consider whether you want an animal that you can interact with regularly or just an interesting friend to admire from a distance.

Veterinary Care: Unlike dogs and cats, reptiles and amphibians do not require monthly or yearly preventative care such as vaccinations or spaying/neutering. However, just like every other animal, they should see a vet for regular wellness exams and when they get sick. You will need to find a vet that can treat exotic animals. Exotic pet vets can be harder to find depending on where you live and can be more expensive than regular veterinarians due to the unique nature of the animals they care for.

Legality: Always check state laws to determine if a species is legal to keep as a pet or if special permits are required. Many native species or ones that are considered dangerous, potentially invasive, or protected under state or federal laws are not legal to possess. You should also consider whether you will be moving from state to state, as interstate transport laws can also apply. 

Costs: When considering any new pet, think about your budget for the initial and long-term costs of keeping them. Some of the initial costs may include a tank, food, heating elements, food/water bowls, hides, substrate, UVB lighting, supplements, water conditioner, plants, thermometer/hygrometer, and anything else you may need the day you bring your pet home. Some of the long-term costs include food, replacement UVB or heat bulbs, new substrate for when it inevitably gets dirty, vet care, and any upgrades you may want.

Picture of a Ball Python

Snakes like ball pythons are common in the pet trade.

Where should I get a reptile or amphibian to keep as a pet?

Adopting animals from a rescue is an excellent way to give an unwanted pet a forever home! There are even rescue organizations that specialize in finding homes for reptiles and amphibians. Some of the wonderful reptile rescues in Virginia include Reptile Education of Virginia, VIPER Inc, and Blue Ridge Reptile Rescue. One advantage of adopting from a rescue is that you’ll have the opportunity to speak to rehabilitators that are knowledgeable on reptile care and can give advice. Going to a rescue is also generally the least expensive option. However, rescues may not have a large selection available since their stock is dependent on what surrenders they receive. An animal from a rescue may also have been surrendered due to health or temperament issues. A reputable rescue will tell you upfront if an animal you’re considering has any problems but be sure to ask whether the animal requires any special care before you bring them home.

Another option for finding a new pet is going to a breeder. Private breeders have in-depth knowledge on how to care for the species they produce and are a great resource for any questions you may have. Since, most of the time, they are selling animals that they’ve personally produced, they’ll know the specific characteristics of each one. This includes details like their favorite foods, what enrichment they like, or even just their general personality. Going to a breeder will also allow you to find a particular color, or morph, that may not be naturally occuring. Breeders often use their knowledge of genetics and cross-breeding to produce exciting colors and patterns that don’t appear in the wild! For this reason, sometimes animals from breeders can be more expensive. Finding a breeder can sometimes be difficult. A great place to look for breeders is at a local reptile expo, listings on reptile Facebook groups, or listings on morph market.

The most familiar option, especially for first-time pet owners, is to go to a pet store. In recent years many chain and independently owned pet stores have started carrying reptiles and amphibians and their respective supplies. This has made keeping them much more accessible because you can buy your pet and their supplies in one trip from a store that’s already in your area! However, if you choose to go this route it’s recommended that you do your research beforehand. Salespeople may not have expertise on the species you’re looking to get and shouldn’t be your primary source of information. Another drawback to buying from a pet store is you don’t know specifically where your animal came from or what conditions it lived in prior to being in the store. Some independently owned pet stores do breed animals in-house or purchase from local breeders but they can also get their stock from mill breeders or get wild-caught suppliers. These are not recommended because they can often be sickly or aggressive. Be sure to ask a manager where they purchase their animals from and to provide paperwork if it’s available.

Picture of two frogs on a hanging coconut.

Frogs can be charismatic and entertaining, but have species requirements due to their sensitivity to their environment.

A Note About Ethically Sourced Pets:

When shopping for a reptile or amphibian you may see the abbreviation “WC” or “CB”; this stands for Wild-Caught or Captive-Bred. These are two of the most common practices that are used to obtain herps for captive care.

“Wild-caught” means the animals have been taken from their natural habitat and sold into the pet trade. Due to the increasing popularity of keeping reptiles and amphibians as pets, poachers have decimated wild populations of animals for the pursuit of profit. These animals are often shipped directly from their home to other countries in boxes or bags without being provided food, water, or heat. Many herps die on this journey. Since these animals are essentially still wild and have only had negative experiences with humans they are often aggressive and difficult to tame. It’s also very common for these animals to have illnesses or parasites since they have not received proper care. These animals are often much less likely to thrive. The reason this practice is still widely used is that the animals are much cheaper and inexperienced herp keepers who don’t know of this practice don’t think to ask where their pet came from.

A great way to combat this is to only buy captive-bred animals. “Captive-bred” means they have never lived in the wild and have been under human care since birth. As a result, the breeders often know much more about the species, their care, and the temperament and history of the individual animal. These animals tend to be easier to tame, healthier, and less likely to have parasites. Many herps that are common in the pet trade such as bearded dragons, leopard geckos, or ball pythons are readily available as captive-bred specimens. Though these animals can initially be more expensive than their wild-caught counterparts, subsequent vet bills and the ecological impact of a WC animal makes it well worth the price.

Picture of a turtle swimming in water.

Turtles are very cute as babies, but require large amounts of space and frequent cleaning as they get older, and most species live a very long time.

Now that you know the basics of keeping a reptile or amphibian, you can decide whether having one is the right choice for your lifestyle. There are many different species available as the pet trade expands and some are more complex than others in terms of their needs. Be sure to do some research and find one that you are willing to devote the necessary time and resources to. Keeping a reptile or amphibian as a pet is a fun and rewarding hobby and opens a door to a new community of dedicated people and fascinating animals! 

Picture of a blue-tongued skink.

Providing a balanced, varied diet of fresh and/or live foods will help keep your pet healthy and happy!

— Written by VLM herpetology keeper, Carter. Contact our Herpetology staff or visit Reptile And Amphibian Weekend (Mar. 26 & 27, 2022) if you have questions about keeping reptiles or amphibians as pets.  

Not-So-Scary Critters

Written by:  Kortney Jaworski, Senior Herpetology Keeper

With Halloween fast approaching, the VLM Herpetology Team wanted to share some our favorite not-so-scary animals that often get a bad reputation (especially at this time of year).

Eastern Cottonmouth (Agkistrodon piscivorus), a Virginia native

1. Snakes: Venomous (not poisonous!) snakes, or any snakes for that matter, can be scary to people. But in fact, snakes are fascinating animals with lots of personality just like your furrier pets at home. Snakes, in general, serve a vital role in the ecosystem by reducing the populations of animals that humans think of as pests (rodents, insects, worms, etc.). And medical research has used some snake venom to develop better pain killers and drugs to treat high blood-pressure.

*Side note: What’s the difference between being poisonous and being venomous?
If you lick or bite it and you get sick or die, it’s poison. If it bites you and you get sick or die, it’s venom. Poison is something that must be ingested; think poisonous mushrooms or a frog that produces a toxin from its skin. Venom is something that must be injected into your body; think venomous snake bites, spider bites, and bee stings (that’s right… bees are venomous). Not all venom is strong enough to kill a human and there are different types of venoms that have different effects (hemotoxins vs neurotoxins).

 

Eastern Red-spotted Newt (Notophthalmus viridescens), a Virginia native

2. Newts: Newts are common in Halloween and witchcraft lore as being an important ingredient in many potions and witches brews. Their habit of living in rotten logs, made people believe that they were “born from fire”; when that aforementioned log would be tossed into the fire and the newts and other salamanders living there would suddenly emerge, trying to escape the heat. However, we now know better and we definitely don’t recommend making soup with one of these guys as they produce a nasty toxin from their skin as self-defense. And how could you not love this cute little guy?!

Australian Green Treefrog (Litoria caerulea), VLM animal ambassador

3. Frogs: Believe it or not, many people are afraid of frogs! And if you’ve ever seen that 1970’s horror film, Frogs, maybe we can see why… but how could someone be afraid of this adorable face?! Our Australian Green Treefrog (pictured above), is an animal ambassador at the museum and is quite the friendly fellow (…unless you’re a cricket!). Frogs, are important to humans as bio-indicators; they are so sensitive to changes in their natural environment (temperature, water quality, disease, etc) that we can often use changes in frog populations to determine the quality of the habitat in which they live… a “canary in the coal mine” of sorts.

 

Writing Spiders or Zigzag Spiders (Argiope aurantia) feeding behavior

4. Spiders: Spiders get a really bad reputation, mostly because many people think all spiders are dangerous to humans. But in reality, yes, all spiders are technically venomous because they need that venom to subdue their prey (usually insects), but only
a few species of spider have venom powerful enough to actually harm a human (e.g. black widow spiders). In the video, our two writing spiders (aka, black and yellow garden spider, golden garden spider, zigzag spider, hay spider, corn spider) are being fed by one of our keepers. As you can see, these girls are quite large but are completely harmless (and actually beneficial to you and your garden) eating only insects. You can also see  the variation in personality and behavior as one of them took their cricket and is munching away, while the other is a little shy about taking food and is trying to scare the intruder away by bouncing in her web, looking as big and scary as possible.

 

 

American Alligator (Alligator mississippiensis) enrichment

5. Crocodiles and Alligators: Crocodiles and alligators can without a doubt be considered dangerous or scary under certain conditions. But it’s important to understand that when these animals receive bad publicity, they are usually just doing what they have evolved to do (being predators) and looking for a meal. What many people don’t know is that alligators, and other crocodilians, are extremely intelligent and perceptive of their surroundings. There are facilities that commonly name train their alligators so that they come out to their keepers when called, and even some wild populations that have been
documented using sticks as tools to lure in unsuspecting birds looking for nesting materials.

In the video, our American Alligator learns that he gets a treat when he approaches his enrichment ball (note: this was his very first interaction with the ball, and only minutes before this he was afraid of this new object in his enclosure). Our herpetology keepers work diligently with the alligators that we keep at the Virginia Living Museum to establish a trusting relationship with these potentially dangerous animals, which allows them to work safely in close proximity to them. This particular alligator has been trained to target, come on the land, go into the water, and hold a position when asked. What a smart boy!

Come see these and others in the “Not So Creepy Crawlies” section during Night of the Living Museum Friday, October 18 and Saturday October 19 from 5:30-8:30pm.

How to Make a Box Turtle Cake

Written by: Kyrie Rowell, Herpetology Keeper

September 28th our Piedmont Gallery box turtle, whom herpetology staff affectionately call Barney or Michael (depending on who you ask), turned ten! So naturally we threw him a birthday party. His party had a banner, streamers, a HUGE birthday card for his party guests to sign, AND a cake.

 

 

 

 

 

 

So how do you make a cake for a box turtle?

In the wild, box turtles are opportunistic omnivores – which basically means they will eat anything they can get their beaks around!

Here at the Virginia Living Museum, we feed our turtles a varied diet to reflect what they might eat in the wild. This includes feeding them something called Mazuri reptile gel. Reptile gel is very similar to regular jello, except this “jello” is made from fish and algae…BUT it is very nutritious, and our turtles LOVE it!

So, substituting Mazuri reptile gel for traditional cake batter..this is how you make a cake for a box turtle:

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

So, there you have it – How to Make a Cake for a Box Turtle! Our box turtle LOVED his cake! Thank you to everyone who helped make his birthday party possible and thank you to all of his party guests for attending his 10th birthday! If you would like to buy him (or any of our amphibians and reptiles) a present, check out our Amazon Wishlist and be sure to stop by our Piedmont Gallery and say HAPPY BIRTHDAY to Barney/Michael the next time you visit us here at the Virginia Living Museum!

 

 

 

Become A Citizen Scientist With FrogWatch USA!

We’ve seen quite a bit of rain over the last few weeks, and now as the temperatures start to rise, the Virginia Living Museum FrogWatch USA chapter is preparing to take to the field once more! One of the museum’s conservation initiatives, FrogWatch USA is a nation-wide citizen science program that observes and records data on native frog and toad populations. We rely heavily on our dedicated volunteer “froggers” for this data collection and we want YOU to join in on the amphibian action!

Photo Credit: Karl Rebenstorf

What is “citizen science”?

Citizen science is pretty much exactly what it sounds like: scientific studies largely being conducted by regular citizens. It’s a community based study that allows the general public to directly input data, thus greatly increasing the area and effectiveness of study! In the case of FrogWatch, this is critical to the program’s success; a small group of biologists would only be able to sample a small study area for a limited window of time. However, by relying on public observations, we can collect vast amounts of data all across the country, year after year!

Photo Credit: Karl Rebenstorf

What is FrogWatch USA?

Created by the Association of Zoos and Aquariums, FrogWatch USA is a citizen science program with over 150 chapters across the United States. FrogWatch volunteers monitor frog and toad populations across the country, and upload their observations to a national database called FieldScope. The data collected on FieldScope is utilized in a variety of studies and land management strategies because it is such an effective means of large-scale population monitoring! Because frogs can be difficult to spot, volunteers are trained to identify different species by their unique breeding calls rather than by a visual observation. This also allows them to make a vague estimate about the population density based on whether just a couple frogs can be heard or an explosive chorus!

What if I don’t know anything about frogs?

Our volunteers come from a wide range of educational and professional backgrounds. It doesn’t matter if you have a PhD in Herpetology or if you just know that frogs are little green things that jump; we will teach you everything you need to know! We will cover basic frog/toad/amphibian biology, introduce you to the ecosystems that frogs and toads call home, and of course train you to identify these animals by their unique voice. Many of our volunteers have little to no scientific background; this is the beauty of citizen science as it allows people to engage in research where they might otherwise never have an opportunity!

Does it require a lot of time? What are the costs?

The FrogWatch program and training are completely FREE (in fact, we’ll even provide food during the training!). You will get a free folder containing data sheets, site registration forms, a frog guide pamphlet, and frog call CD at the start of the session. While you can always purchase additional materials such as guide books, everything you need to be an active FrogWatch volunteer will be provided to you at no charge! FrogWatch also requires only a limited amount of your time and effort (not many people want to spend a lot of their free time looking for frogs!). In fact, the biggest time commitment is simply the training. Two training sessions are held a week apart (you must attend both) and generally run 3-4 hours. Once that’s done, the chapter requires very little of your time: each data collection period is only THREE MINUTES long and can be conducted in your own backyard if conditions are right! Just a few minutes of your time each month (or even year) can provide the program with valuable data!

How do I join up?

You can contact the chapter coordinators to schedule your training. If you are unable to attend a session this year, we can also put you on our contact list and schedule you for an early training session next year. We look forward to hearing from you, and getting you prepared to be a citizen scientist!

Travis Land (travis.land@thevlm.org)

Thomas Waser (thomas.waser@thevlm.org

Photo Credit: Karl Rebenstorf

Herp Highlight #10: Canebrake Rattlesnake

One of the VLM’s most popular reptile residents makes his home in our Mountain Cove habitarium. As first glance, he may go unnoticed by guests, as his colors blend in quite effectively with his surroundings, but disturb his wild brethren and you will hear the unmistakable sound of their warning. Waiting patiently to ambush his prey is our Canebrake Rattlesnake.

Photo Credit: Karl Rebenstorf

Yes, Virginia is home to rattlesnakes; in fact, some of them reside a little bit closer to the Virginia Living Museum than you may realize! Timber rattlesnakes (Crotalus horridus) typically range throughout the mountains of western Virginia, however an isolated population known as the Canebrake rattlesnake inhabits the south-east portion of the state. Though isolated and bearing a different name, they are indeed of the same species as the Timber, though debate continues regarding their status as a subspecies. Canebrake rattlesnakes can rarely be found in Newport News, most encountered around Sandy Bottom Nature park, though their numbers are dwindling due to human encroachment. The Canebrake has a Tier II Virginia Wildlife Action Plan Rating (Very High Conservation Need), meaning they face a high risk of extirpation (becoming extinct in one area but existing elsewhere).

Photo Credit: Karl Rebenstorf

Like Virginia’s other venomous snakes, the rattlesnake is a pit viper, named for the small pit that exists between the eye and nostril. The pit, combined with their cat-like slit pupils, allows the snake to sense prey even in complete darkness. Rattlesnakes are large bodied, and behave as ambush predators, lying in wait for days at a time for prey to come within reach. They then lash out with an incredibly fast strike, envenomating prey with their deadly venom (fun fact: a rattlesnake’s strike lasts between 44 and 70 milliseconds; by comparison, it takes you almost 200 milliseconds just to blink your eyes once!). Like all rattlesnakes, the Canebrake bears the signature rattle at the end of its tail to warn possible predators or unwary animals that may step on it, including humans.

Photo Credit: Karl Rebenstorf

Living in close proximity to such a formidable predator may raise some concerns, but you really don’t face any great danger from this snake. Though they do bear venom that can be potentially life-threatening to an adult human, several factors greatly diminish the risk posed by the Canebrake rattlesnake:

  1. They are incredibly uncommon in the eastern part of the state, and are rarely encountered by humans.
  2. They are fairly docile animals. They are not quick to anger and of course do not see humans as prey so they are not an actively aggressive species.
  3.  They give plenty of warning. Because they need to conserve their precious venom for hunting prey, they prefer to warn predators/humans/animals away with their rattle. They generally will not strike unless left no other choice.

Most rattlesnake bites are sustained when an individual is trying to capture or kill a snake, or simply ignores its warning. However, while you are extremely unlikely to be harmed by a rattlesnake, it is possible you may be saved by one. Like many species of herptiles, the toxins of the rattlesnake are being studied for their medicinal potential; rattlesnake venom may be key to treating and preventing heart attacks and strokes by blocking the clotting of blood. The rattlesnake is certainly more friend than foe!

Some Rattlesnake Fun Facts!

  • There is nothing inside a rattlesnake’s rattle – it’s completely hollow. The sound is made when the segments rub against each other!
  • It is not possible to determine the snakes age by counting rattle segments, these are added when the snake sheds, and this can vary in frequency based on a multitude of conditions (they can also lose segments!).
  • Rattlesnakes are ovoviviparous. The mother snake retains her eggs inside her body; after they hatch internally, she gives live birth to her young!

Want to meet our Canebrake rattlesnake and more awesome species like him? Be sure to stop by the museum March 16-17th for our annual Reptile Weekend! Countless species will be out on display with an an impressive venomous snake collection provided by Reptile Education of Virginia! Fun for the whole family!

Reptiles! Bizarre and Beautiful (March 16th and 17th)

St. Patrick may have driven the snakes from Ireland, but there will be plenty of serpents on display at the VLM during our annual reptile weekend event, Reptiles: Bizarre and Beautiful on March 16th and 17th! Come and observe some of the most incredible species of lizards, turtles, and even crocodilians and learn about their crucial roles! The two day event will feature reptiles from all over the world, presented by organizations including Sandy Bottom Nature Park, the Virginia Herpetological Society, and Reptile Education of Virginia. Attend scheduled feedings and enrichment programs to see our animals in action, or relax and enjoy a presentation by our talented education staff! Visit the Virginia Aquarium Stranding Team, and discover what simple changes you can make to help protect marine species like the loggerhead sea turtle. Get up close and personal with a venomous snake, and discover how some of the deadliest snakes on the planet are now saving human lives everyday! For the creative lads and lasses, we have crafts, scavengers hunts, and activities for all ages! Everyone will find something to enjoy at Reptile Weekend!

Come out and celebrate the scaly side of life! See (and even touch!) some of the most amazing creatures from around the globe, and discover the beauty in these often maligned animals! So join us for a weekend of fun, learning, and reptiles!  Read more here.

Join Us for Reptiles: Bizarre and Beautiful! (March 17th &18th)

March 4, 2018

March has officially arrived which means St. Patrick’s Day is just around the corner! While many of you may already have plans to party the night away, you might be looking for something fun to do to pass the time leading up to the festivities. Why sit around waiting at home when you can visit the Virginia Living Museum for our annual Reptile Weekend event?!

St. Patrick may have driven all the snakes out of Ireland, but there will be plenty of serpents on display at the VLM, alongside countless species of lizards, turtles, and even crocodilians! The two day event will feature reptiles from all over the world, presented by organizations including Sandy Bottom Nature Park, the Virginia Herpetological Society, and Reptile Education of Virginia. Join our dedicated herpetology staff for exciting behind-the-scenes tours, and see first hand how our own reptiles and amphibians are cared for everyday. Attend scheduled feedings and enrichment programs (listed below) to see our animals in action, or relax and enjoy a presentation by our talented education staff! Visit the Virginia Aquarium Stranding Team, and discover what simple changes you can make to help protect marine species like the loggerhead sea turtle. Get up close and personal with a venomous snake, and discover how some of the deadliest snakes on the planet are now saving human lives everyday! Got the kids stuck at home for spring break? We have crafts, scavengers hunts, and activities for all ages! Everyone will find something to enjoy at Reptile Weekend!

You’ll even get to see the beautiful boy pictured here!

Reptile weekend is all about celebrating the scaly side of life! See (and even touch!) some of the most amazing creatures from around the globe, and discover the beauty in these often maligned animals! So join us for a weekend of fun, learning, and reptiles!

 

SATURDAY, MARCH 17 SUNDAY, MARCH 18
11:00 Animal Show (lab) 11:00 Animal Show (lab)
11:30am A Sky Full of Scales (planetarium) 11:30am A Sky Full of Scales (planetarium)
12:00 Animal Show (lab) 12:00 Animal Show (lab)
12:30pm Noisy Neighbors (planetarium) 12:30pm Noisy Neighbors (planetarium)
1:00 Enrichment (Swamp Turtles)* 1:00 Enrichment (Alligator)*
1:30pm A Sky Full of Scales (planetarium) 1:30pm A Sky Full of Scales (planetarium)
2:00 Animal Show (lab) 2:00 Animal Show (lab)
2:30pm Noisy Neighbors (planetarium) 2:30pm Noisy Neighbors (planetarium)
3:00pm Animal Show (lab) 3:00pm Animal Show (lab)
3:30pm A Sky Full of Scales (planetarium) 3:30pm A Sky Full of Scales (planetarium)

Plants Need Snakes Too!

February 25, 2018

Snakes do so many great things for us humans! They eat a lot of pest species such as insects, mice, rats and other rodents, animals that could cause a lot of damage or even spread diseases. Some snakes produce venom that, while occasionally hazardous, provides us with all kinds of medical products that save thousands of lives every year. They are even eaten by humans in many places around the world, directly benefiting people as a source of food. Snakes are incredibly important to us (though we may not always realize it!), but they benefit all kinds of animal species besides humans. Even plants rely on these reptiles to help shape the ecosystem!

As we all know, plants begin their lives as seeds. It is important that seeds get as far away from their “parent” as they can; growing beneath their parent puts them in direct competition for sunlight, water and nutrients. More than likely, a seed that doesn’t fall far from the tree doesn’t last long. Some seeds rely on wind to blow them away, while others are swept away by rain water. Others rely on animals for transportation, hitching a ride on fur or feathers to reach a new destination. And a few seeds even hitch a ride inside an animal! These seeds are ingested when an animal eats fruit or berries, then are excreted whole after passing through the digestive system. By the time they have been expelled, they will likely have traveled a good distance from their parent!

Rodents often eat seeds, destroying them in the process. With their large cheek pouches, they are able to collect large numbers of seeds which they will take back to their burrows and eat. However, very often these rodents are themselves caught and eaten by larger predators, and many are still carrying the seeds in their cheek pouches when they are consumed! The predator then passes the seeds through their digestive system, becoming what we call a secondary seed disperser. Herpetologists from Cornell University conducted a study that identified rattlesnakes as important secondary dispersers. Examining 50 rattlesnakes, they found the remains of a rodent meal in 45 of them, and all their digestive tracts contained 971 seeds in total! All of these seeds would likely have been destroyed by the rodents, but were able to pass through the digestive tract of the snakes, some even germinating inside the snakes’ bodies!

Think about it, that is almost 1,000 seeds saved by less than 50 snakes enjoying a single meal! These snakes likely pass a massive number of seeds every year, giving new generations of plants a second chance at life. This would have an obvious impact on the ecosystem, and directly affect plant distributions and population densities. And with rodents serving as a food source for a huge number of snake species around the world, one can only assume that snakes have played a heavy role in shaping our environment! So be sure to stop on by the Virginia Living Museum this spring and say hello to one of these amazing “ecological engineers”!

Study Link: https://www.sciencedaily.com/

Herp Highlight #9: Eastern Glass Lizard

January 10, 2018

Walking through the museum’s Chesapeake Bay Gallery, you may notice a rather small exhibit located just between our beach and saltwater marsh exhibits; a literal hole-in-the-wall. At first glance, you might believe the exhibit to be empty, save for a few sticks, rocks and a whole lot of sand. Of course, the exhibit isn’t empty! This is our dunes exhibit, and if you are lucky during your visit, you may get the chance to see one of Virginia’s most unusual (and uncommon) reptiles: the Eastern Glass Lizard!

The eastern glass lizard (Ophisaurus ventralis) is fairly unusual because of one particular feature: it completely lacks legs. While a legless lizard could very easily be mistaken for a snake, there are a couple characteristics that set them apart. Glass lizards have eyelids that open and close just like ours, while snakes lack eyelids and have a clear scale that covers the eye, so their eyes are always “open”. Lizards also have an external ear opening behind the eye that snakes completely lack. Of course, these features can be difficult to observe from a distance, but it’s always better to give a wild animal its space (especially when you aren’t completely sure what it is)!

Glass lizards are fossorial, meaning they live most of their lives underground. Their legless form allows them to move through the ground with relative ease. This unfortunately means that our own lizard spends much of its time buried, but it does make an appearance from time to time!

The glass lizard is Virginia’s longest lizard, reaching lengths between 1.5 and 2 feet when fully grown (though a record length of 42.6 inches has been documented…just not in VA!). They feed largely on arthropods: caterpillars, crickets, roaches, beetles and other bugs are on the menu for a hungry glass lizard. Though they may eat the occasional lizard, young rodent or snake, their favorite food is grasshoppers. Our own glass lizard has a taste for crickets and, once in a while, butterworms as a treat!

The glass lizard’s name comes from its defensive behavior. If confronted by a predator, the glass lizard can autotomize their tail…this means that they can literally let their tail break off, almost like they were made of glass. The tail makes up about 66% of the body, and when jettisoned, it will wiggle on its own. A predator will (hopefully) be distracted by the tail, and the lizard can make its escape. It will regrow its tail over the next few months, though the new tail may be shorter when completely grown-still, a far better fate than being eaten!

A Virginia Wildlife Action Plan Rating Tier II species, the glass lizard faces a high risk of extinction in Va, and it requires active conservation. With dwindling populations and a limited distribution, these reptiles are becoming a rare sight in Virginia. Be sure to check out the glass lizard exhibit during your next visit to the Virginia Living Museum; the lizard is an incredibly unique animal that faces an uncertain future in our home state.

Our Snakes Have A Superpower!

April 4, 20117

Residing in our Mountain Cove habitarium, the canebrake rattlesnake is one of the VLM’s pit viper species. Being a venomous snake, the rattlesnake has a formidable reputation and many people regard this reptile with fear and caution due to its potentially life-threatening toxin. But upon inspection, our canebrake rattlesnake often appears quite lazy, curled up and not moving for hours or days at a time. This is all part of the pit viper hunting strategy; as ambush predators, rattlesnakes lie in wait for long periods of time, then strike out with a venomous bite when prey wanders just within reach. To ensure the snake doesn’t miss a meal, it employs a real-life superpower.

Photo Credit: Karl Rebenstorf

A 2016 study found that most snakes, including rattlesnakes, are capable of reaching mind-boggling speeds when striking at prey. Their super-speed is almost impossibly fast and each strike lasts between 44 and 70 milliseconds! By comparison, it takes you almost 200 milliseconds just to blink your eyes once! Their prey doesn’t stand a chance; at such speeds, the snake will have landed the killing blow before the target even realizes it is under attack. It is a sound strategy as it ensures the snakes will almost always get its meal.

Photo Credit: Karl Rebenstorf

This super fast movement is all thanks to a ton of muscles. While you have between 700 and 800 muscles in your whole body, even the smallest snake has between 10,000 and 15,000 muscles in its body. Their ability to strike at high speeds likely comes from their muscles being connected, building up huge quantities of energy and snapping out at high speed like a rubber band. But because the snake moves so fast, it experiences forces that would make a human (and most other animals) lose consciousness! A striking snake may experience up to 30G (30 times the force of gravity)…even the most seasoned fighter jet pilot would lose consciousness shortly after reaching 10G!

Photo Credit: Karl Rebenstorf

Moving at high speeds, snakes impact their prey with incredible force, so they must have some means of protecting their brain. The brain is a very sensitive organ and can be easily hurt by high speeds and impacts; this is why American football players wear helmets to reduce the risk of concussions or other injuries. The unique shape of a snake’s skull protects the brain during high-speed collisions.

“The skull of a snake is incredibly kinetic and mobile. There are so many different joints which allow stretching and mobility. It could be that if one part lands first, it can absorb a little bit of shock before that’s transferred to another part, so the snake can absorb the impact of the strike far easier and it doesn’t concuss them.” -David Penning, University of Louisiana (Source)

Photo Credit: Karl Rebenstorf

Researchers are now studying how snakes tolerate large forces to see if these tactics could help protect humans from powerful forces. Just think, by studying how snakes attack, we might be able to create cars that better protect drivers and passengers during bad accidents! It’s just one more example in the long list of ways even the most feared snakes are helping people. In the meantime, be sure to come visit the Canebrake Rattlesnake, the real-life superhero of the VLM!

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