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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!

Goodbye Gator! (Pt. 1)

*UPDATE*: Due to the extreme flooding in South Carolina as a result of hurricane Joaquin, the alligator will not be transported on the originally planned date. The gator will remain on exhibit until we have received word that Alligator Adventure is ready for his arrival. Please feel free to come by and enjoy our American Alligator through his extended stay!*


Tuesday, October 6th, will be your last chance to come and see our large gator in the Cypress Swamp habitarium. At almost 7 1/2 feet and weighing around 125 lbs, the big guy has just grown too large for his small exhibit, especially since he will likely double in size over his lifetime!

Photo Credit: Karl Rebenstorf

Photo Credit: Karl Rebenstorf

Our exhibit male was acquired in 2011 from Gator Productions in Florida, and in just a few short years has managed to almost completely outgrow his exhibit (this is a perfect example as to why no one should ever own a gator as a “pet”). Because the Virginia Living Museum does not have the facilities to house large gators, our exhibit alligator will be transferred down to Alligator Adventure, (SC). There he will have access to a larger space and the care necessary for a reptile his size.

While the exhibit is unoccupied, herpetology staff will be working hard to refinish the exhibit glass. Years of wear and tear from our gators has left the surface marred with scratches and scuffs, and the herps team hopes to make the exhibit more visible to our guests. While drained, staff will also deep clean the exhibit and ensure that all systems, pumps, and filters are in proper working order (the chance may not come around again for a few years).

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But worry not, gator fans! After his departure, the large alligator will have a replacement: our young gator currently used for educational programs. At less than 4 feet in length, this little guy will have a huge exhibit to fill, and guests will be able to watch him grow up over the next several years. Because the exhibit will have so much space with such a young gator, the herpetology team is happy to announce that another animal will be exhibited in the same enclosure: our common snapping turtle.

While we are sad to see our alligator go, we are thrilled that we can continue building our professional relationship with other facilities, and provide new opportunities for the Virginia Living Museum. And thanks to the efforts of the folks down at Alligator Adventure, our big guy will be given care that would have been difficult to provide at our own facility.

So come on down to the Virginia Living Museum this week and say goodbye to our American Alligator!

Herp Highlight #3: Greater Siren

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Hidden away in the roots of a cypress tree in our swamp habitarium is a strange, eel-looking creature. Resting on the bottom of the swamp during the day, this odd animal becomes a fierce predator under the cover of darkness. This slimy swamp dweller is no eel (it’s not even a fish!), it is a giant salamander known as a Greater Siren!


Greater Sirens (Siren lacertina) are very unique amphibians, growing to over three feet long. Despite their large size, these salamanders closely resemble the larval form of other salamanders with their long eel-shaped body and frilly external gills. Sirens are easy to identify as they lack hind legs, and only bear two relatively weak forelimbs. The siren is named for it’s habit of shrieking or screaming when grabbed, in an attempt to startle predators.


Though sirens have been known to munch on vegetation, they are primarily carnivores, feeding on crayfish, insects, worms, snails, and even fish. And like fish, the siren uses a lateral line organ to locate its prey.


Sirens are aquatic animals, but they are well equipped to survive in harsh conditions. If a drought causes a shortage of water, the greater siren may burrow itself in the mud and aestivate. It will secrete a cocoon of mucus and shed skin to prevent further water loss, and slow down body functions by up to 70%. It can survive like this for up to two years, until water has returned to its habitat.


Be sure to visit all the amphibians at the Virginia Living Museum this summer, and check out our greater siren in our cypress swamp habitarium!

Herp Highlight #2: Red-Eared Slider

VLM Cypress Swamp Habitarium. Photo Credit: Karl Rebenstorf

VLM Cypress Swamp Habitarium. Photo Credit: Karl Rebenstorf

Our Cypress Swamp exhibit is home to 4 species of turtles that we collectively call “pond turtles”. Though they all have their unique characteristics and behaviors, one species in particular is immediately recognizable to many guests: the Red-Eared Slider. Extremely well founded and popular in the pet trade, virtually everyone has seen this turtle in zoos, aquariums, and even pet stores across the country.

A red stripe running alongside the head gives the Red-Eared Slider its name and is quickly  recognized by reptile enthusiasts. This slider is a large species of semi-aquatic turtle that feeds on vegetation, insects, worms, fish and snails and it can be an aggressive hunter. Though not a snapping turtle, it has a serrated beak that can deliver a nasty bite if provoked. Because they are relatively easy to maintain, Red-Eared Sliders have been popular in the pet trade for decades, and today they are the most commonly traded turtles in the world.

Red-Eared Sliders are very common in our local waterways, and you can typically find them basking on logs in lakes and ponds. Despite their strong, healthy population, there is a major problem: they are not supposed to be here. These turtles are native to the Southern US and Central America and, thanks to the pet trade, have become an invasive species in Virginia. After they became popular as pets, many well meaning pet owners released their sliders, something that is both detrimental to native wildlife and illegal, and today these turtles are out-competing many of our native species. Just like the infamous pythons in the everglades, this invasive turtle could spell disaster for some of Virginia’s species. But it’s not just Virginia that’s threatened; these turtles have invaded every continent except Antarctica, and are banned in many countries around the globe. The IUCN even included these pesky turtles on their “List of the World’s 100 Most Invasive Species”, a list that includes the Burmese Python and Cane Toad.


Though Red-Eared Sliders are amazing animals, they do not have a place in our environment. Research should always be done before adopting any animal; turtles in particular can live an exceedingly long time, and require more care and maintenance than most people realize. Because of this, many owners eventually get tired of their pets and wish to “free” them. No turtles (no animals in general) should ever be released into the ecosystem. Captive animals can carry a number of diseases that can decimate wild populations. Unfortunately, the Red-Eared Slider is here to stay, thanks to the actions of humans. So when you’re observing our Red-Eared Slider in our swamp habitarium, just remember how much their species has impacted life in our own backyard.


Did you know?

In a series of comics, Tales of the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, the iconic Ninja Turtles were actually revealed to be mutated Red-Eared Sliders. After this revelation, sales of Red-Eared Sliders sky rocketed, particularly in Great Britain. The trade increased yet again in 2014 when the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles film was released to theaters.


Happy World Snake Day!

July 16th is World Snake Day (no, it’s real, I promise I didn’t make it up!), a day to take a closer look at all serpents and appreciate all they do for us. In honor of these scaly beauties, I’ve compiled a few amazing and unusual facts about snakes around the world. Did you know…

  • Snakes can travel by a variety of means including slithering, swimming, climbing and even gliding! The flying snake can soar further than any other gliding animal!
  • A snake’s scales are made up of keratin, the same compound as your own hair and fingernails.
  • While most reptiles lay eggs, up to 30% of all snakes are ovoviviparous, which means they raise eggs internally and give birth to live young!
  • There are over 3,000 species of snakes around the world, but only about 30 have a bite that can kill a human.
  • The spitting cobra is able to shoot venom long distances to defend itself. The insides of its fangs have grooves similar to the barrel of a rifle, allowing for greater distance and accuracy!


  • Snakes have a variety of warnings when threatened including hissing, puffing up, rattling tails, hooding, and even farting! The Sonoran Coral snake uses ‘cloacal popping’ to deter would-be predators!
  • Snakes do actually have bones, and may have over 300 ribs!


  • Every Brahminy Blind Snake ever collected has been a female. The reproduce through parthenogenesis, giving birth to genetically identical young.
  • The Japanese Tiger Keelback is both poisonous AND venomous. It has a naturally venomous bite, and hunts poisonous amphibians. It ‘steals’ the poison from the amphibians it eats and secretes it from glands on the back of its neck!
  • Because they prey largely on small rodents that carry all kinds of bacteria, recent studies have revealed that snakes have actually helped slow the spread of Lyme Disease and other similar maladies!

Snakes display an incredible range of behaviors and characteristics, many of which are very beneficial to humans (the pros far outweigh the cons!). World Snake Day is a day to appreciate all these benefits, and to spread awareness to the community. To learn more about the snakes in your area, stop on by the Virginia Living Museum, and get up close and personal with some of our backyard buddies!

Jurassic World: Herpetology Edition

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With the arrival of the Jurassic World movie to theaters, the public is getting swept up in a dino craze! Due to their often massive size and fierce disposition, dinosaurs have always been popular in modern culture with iconic favorites like the T. Rex, triceratops, and velociraptor. But the dinosaurs weren’t the only giants stomping around millions of years ago, and some of their huge contemporaries were truly terrifying, including…

A Giant Snake as Long as a Bus

In 2009, paleontologists unearthed the remains of a gigantic snake previously unknown to science. Found in La Guajira, Colombia, the snake was dubbed Titanoboa, and quickly became an internet sensation. At about 45 feet long and weighing in around 2,500 lbs, the Titanoboa was the largest snake to ever exist. Living during the Paleocene epoch (the time period immediately following the dinosaur extinction), Titanoboa is believed to have been very similar to a modern day anaconda. Green anacondas are the heaviest snakes alive today, and are world famous for their habit of crushing their prey to death. Unlike the anaconda, it is believe that Titanoboa may not have constricted its prey, but rather clamped down on it with powerful jaws, much like a crocodile.

The River Turtle the Size of a Boat

Archelon, a giant, leathery-shelled sea turtle, was long believed to be the largest turtle to ever live. But it was recently discovered that an even larger prehistoric creature was dwelling in the murky Miocene rivers. With a carapace measuring more than 11 feet long, Stupendemys is now confirmed to be the largest turtle to ever exist. This freshwater giant was a species of side-neck turtle (these turtles do not pull their head into their shell, but rather tuck their head and neck to the side to protect them) that fed on aquatic vegetation. Due to their immense weight, it is hypothesized that these turtles were weak swimmers and simply lumbered slowly across the river bottom. At such an immense size, it’s hard to imagine anything could dine on Stupendemys, but tooth marks scarring ancient shells have suggested that some ancient predator certainly tried. Could a massive super-predator have caused the Stupendemys to grow to its incredible size?

A Super Croc with Jaws as Long as a Person

Hailing from the Cretaceous Period, Sarcosuchus is the largest crocodile-like reptile to have ever existed. This behemoth was about 40 feet long, with 5 foot jaws, and weighed in at a whopping 8 tons. Sarcosuchus is believed to have had a similar diet and behavior as the present day Nile crocodile, likely feeding on large animals that frequented the water’s edge. Because of its imposing size, it’s widely accepted that this giant croc relative likely fed on dinosaurs that strayed too close. While today’s crocs tear meat off of their prey by “death-rolling”, the bio-mechanics of the Sarcosuchus’ skull has shown that it was not capable of this maneuver. It likely hunted large prey, but it’s still not known exactly how.

The Lizard that Was an Ancient Dragon

Imagine a Komodo dragon, the largest lizard alive today. Now imagine that same lizard scaled up to be about 26 feet long; this is the form of the ancient Megalania. This ancient reptile was a monitor, part of the same group of lizards as the Komodo dragon, likely feeding on medium to large sized mammals, birds, reptiles and eggs. Today, Komodo dragons are recognized as being venomous lizards; because the Megalania is so closely related, it’s very possible that it too was venomous, making it the largest venomous vertebrate known. Today, there are rare reports from Australia and New Guinea that the Megalania still exists, however these reports only began after the discovery became publicly known, and there is no evidence that there is a surviving population (whew!).

The Frog that Ate Young Dinosaurs

A fearsome predator, this amphibious nightmare has a very formidable name: Beelzebufo named after Beelzebub, a contemporary name for the Devil. Resembling modern day horned toads, Beelzebufo may have grown to over 16 inches, making it the largest frog known to exist. Like pac-man frogs, this ancient amphibian had an expansive mouth that could engulf very large prey, possibly including hatchling dinosaurs. Beelzebufo was recently discovered to be covered in a form of armor, with bony scutes on its head and back for protection. Though not exceedingly large for a prehistoric creature, this frog had a gigantic appetite!

The Salamander as Large as Your Car

In 2008, a large creature resembling a crocodile was found by paleontologists in Antarctica. Name Kryostega, this animal was no reptile, but rather a large amphibian closely related to salamanders…with very large teeth. Kryostega belonged to an ancient group of amphibians called themnospondyls, salamander-like creatures that bore teeth. But Kryostega had exceedingly large teeth that were more than an inch long and as thick as an adult human’s pinky finger. At about 15 feet long, this super salamander looked and behaved much like a crocodile, chomping down on its prey with vicious force.

So take note, Spielberg! There are plenty of toothy giants living in the past to feature in your next hit film (Titanoboa Vs. T. Rex, anybody?).  And to my followers, the next time you see a snake in your yard, just remind yourself how lucky you are. His great, great ancestor may have eaten crocodiles!

The VLM takes to the field for FrogWatch!

We are a little over halfway through the FrogWatch USA season, but there is still plenty of monitoring to be done by the museum’s volunteers. The VLM FrogWatch chapter has been busy in the field, collecting data across Newport News and South Eastern Virginia with great success! So far over 17 species of frogs and toads have been recorded by VLM volunteers, a number that will likely increase as the season progresses.

The VLM FrogWatch crew gathers to discuss findings in Gloucester.

Not familiar with the FrogWatch USA program? FrogWatch is a citizen-science program created by the Association of Zoos and Aquariums. Citizen-science is exactly what it sounds like: a community based study that allows the public to directly input data, thus greatly increasing the area and effectiveness of study! So far, over 150 chapters have been established across 45 states, providing a detailed picture of amphibian distribution and activity in the US. Volunteers of the FrogWatch program are trained to recognize frog species by their breeding calls alone, and in the field they monitor what species are active by listening for those calls! Earlier this month, the VLM chapter recorded the calls of a pine woods treefrog in Gloucester, a species that had never been recorded in the area!

The data collected by FrogWatch volunteers is uploaded to FieldScope, an open-access program that displays every observation from every volunteer and chapter. The data collected on FieldScope has even been used in a variety of studies and land management strategies because it is such an effective means of large-scale population monitoring! Below you can see a map of the VLM’s monitoring sites (each of the frogs represents a site, and the number inside represents the number of frog observations).


Want to learn more about FrogWatch? The Virginia Living Museum is always looking for more volunteers to join the FrogWatch team next season! Stop by the VLM if you are interested in becoming a part of this amazing program! For more information visit .


Herp Highlight #1: American Alligator

In an effort to show off some of our amazing herp species here at the museum, I am starting a new series of “Herp Highlight” posts that will showcase some of our awesome Virginia natives. And to start off our highlight series I have chosen the most obvious candidate, the “biggest and baddest” of our reptiles, our American Alligator (Alligator mississippiensis). At just over six feet and weighing in at about 110 lbs, the alligator on exhibit is the largest reptile the herpetology team cares for at the museum (this does not include the Loggerhead Sea Turtle, cared for by our awesome Aquariums department)!

“Wait a minute! There are no gators in Virginia!” Well that’s a good point: There are no wild alligators in Virginia…for now. In the past, the range of American Alligators extended just up into Virginia, mostly in the area of the Great Dismal Swamp. However, hunting in the 1900’s decimated the populations of gators, driving them to the brink of extinction. In 1973, the American Alligator was listed on the Endangered Species Act and became federally protected. Since that time, alligator numbers have miraculously rebounded and the species was taken off the endangered list in 1987, making alligators a true conservation success story. Though they have not returned to Virginia just yet, American Alligators can be found from Florida to North Carolina, just shy of the VA border.

In the wild, male alligators may grow as large as 14 feet (females reach about 10) and feed on a variety of animals including fish, turtles, snakes, water birds, frogs, and shoreline mammals. In recent years, researchers have been surprised to find that alligators (and their crocodile cousins) also often feed on fruits and berries growing around their habitat, making them omnivorous and not strictly carnivores as previously believed. Here at the Living Museum our alligators receive a diet of mice/rats, smelt, croc-chow, trout and catfish!

Here are just a few fun facts about alligators!:

  • Alligators have around 80 teeth which the shed frequently like sharks. An alligator may go through 2,000-3,000 teeth in its lifetime!
  • Even though alligators are reptiles, they are more closely related to birds.
  • Most reptiles and amphibians have a three-chambered heart. The alligator has a four-chambered heart just like birds and mammals.
  • Female gators make very devoted mothers, and will care for their young for up to 2 years!
  • The word “alligator” come from the Spanish word for lizard, “el legarto”.
  • Alligators are covered in a tough armor called osteoderms, which is made up of bone embedded in their skin.
  • The temperature of the nest determines whether the hatchlings will be male or female! This is known as temperature dependent sex determination.
  • Alligators have acute sensory organs in their jaws that can detect disturbances in the water.

Be sure to stop by the Living Museum this summer and pay a visit to our american alligator!

Photo Credit: Karl Rebenstorf

Photo Credit: Karl Rebenstorf



A Backyard Pharmacy

In recent years, the conservation movement has really amped up, and now many people around the globe are striving to make changes to save the natural world. Due to habitat loss, poaching, over-hunting, pollution, climate change, disease, and a host of other threats, thousands of species worldwide are threatened or endangered, and reptiles and (especially) amphibians are on that list. Fortunately, public concern is on the rise, and countless people have given their time, energy, and resources to aid in protecting these species.

But even now there are many others who still ask themselves, “Why all the effort to save this species? How does it even affect me?” It may sound selfish at first, but with the daily hustle and bustle of our lives, it’s hard to find the time to be concerned over an endangered South American tree frog or a giant Galapagos tortoise. And while it would be a shame to lose these amazing animals, would it really, truly affect our day to day lives?


Barking Treefrog - Photo credit: Karl Rebenstorf

Barking Treefrog – Photo credit: Karl Rebenstorf

Whether you realize it or not, reptiles and amphibians save thousands of human lives each year. The toxins and venoms produced by herpetiles have been used in a huge variety of medical applications with astounding success. These applications include:

Painkillers: The toxins of Tricolor Poison Dart Frogs are used to create non-addictive painkillers 200 times more effective than morphine.

Diabetes Treatments: The venomous saliva of the Gila Monster is a major component of Byetta, a drug used for the management of type 2 diabetes.

Heart Attack and Stroke Treatment: The venom and toxins of numerous snakes and amphibians has shown the ability to treat and prevent heart attacks and strokes by blocking the clotting of blood.

Treatment of Ovarian, Skin, and Lung Cancer: The African Clawed Frog’s toxin has shown great promise in the lab treating aggressive and terminal diseases including liver, lung, colon, pancreatic, breast, skin and ovarian cancers.

Venoms and toxins are now being scrutinized for their abilities to treat a myriad of diseases. Frogs alone are expected to provide treatment for various cancers, heart attacks, strokes, seizures, depression, Alzheimer’s, and many other ailments. The African Clawed Frog is even responsible for a non-toxic glue currently used in human organ surgery! And while often despised due to their unfortunate reputation, many venomous snakes are coming to the rescue with treatments for cancers, heart attacks and strokes.

So if venom is so effective in the field of medicine, why are we only discovering them now? Well, venom-based cures are far from a new idea. Traditional Chinese medicine has relied on frog toxins to fight liver, lung, colon and pancreatic cancers. In the 1830’s, cobra venom was widely distributed as a homeopathic painkiller. These cures have even appeared in Sanskrit texts from the second century AD. Around 67 B.C., Mithradates VI of Pontus (an enemy of the Roman Empire) claimed to have been saved twice on the battlefield when snake venom was applied to his wounds. Whether or not these stories are true, ancient people at least seemed aware of the pharmaceutical properties of venom.

But these medicines may be at risk, as we saw with the Gastric Brooding Frog. This peculiar frog was remarkable in that it swallowed its eggs and raised its young in its stomach, before belching up its froglets. The medical community realized that the frog was able to deliberately stop making stomach acids, and they hoped to apply this to human treatments of stomach ulcers, or allow patients of stomach surgery to recover more quickly. Interest in the frog intensified and suddenly the gastric brooding frog vanished. The species was declared extinct in 1983 when the last captive individual died, and with it, its extraordinary abilities.

Today, hundreds of thousands of animals are at risk of extinction. And while some may seem insignificant to us, the venom of even the smallest insect could provide the cures to some of the most unpleasant diseases. Humans rely on the environment more than they often realize, and when we neglect the environment, it is often to the detriment of ourselves. Because of our actions, the gastric brooding frog was lost, and with it, a major medical advancement. Will we cost ourselves more opportunities, or will we work harder to recover these incredible species for our own benefit? Perhaps in this case, being selfish may be the best hope for these animals. So the next time you see a venomous snake or toxic amphibian, just remember it is statistically more likely to save your life than to harm you.

Northern Copperhead -Photo credit: Karl Rebenstorf

Northern Copperhead -Photo credit: Karl Rebenstorf

Spring Time is Turtle Time

Despite a few remaining cold bouts, spring has finally sprung! And with spring comes a new generation of countless species of wildlife, including our good friends the turtles. Around this time of year, we can expect to see turtles of all sorts crossing local roadways looking for their breeding grounds, as well as newly hatched offspring preparing to make it on their own. Here are just a few things to remember when you see our shelled friends out and about:

A yellowbelly slider perches on a log. Photo credit: Karl Rebenstorf

A yellowbelly slider perches on a log. Photo credit: Karl Rebenstorf

They don’t need our care!: These animals have always thrived in the wild and that’s not about to change. They do not need our care or interference to survive, and even seemingly defenseless hatchlings are usually well equipped to make it on their own. More often than not, our “assistance” is a hindrance to these animals and can even be detrimental to their survival. If you see an animal that you truly believe to be in trouble, consider calling a reptile rescue (or the VLM!) and let trained professionals assist the animal.

Newly hatched red-bellied turtle

Newly hatched red-bellied turtle

Help that turtle cross the road…then leave it on its way: When you see a turtle crossing a busy road, there is nothing wrong with giving them a helping hand across. Move the turtle to the other side of the road in the direction it was heading. The turtle is likely crossing the street to get to a known pond or breeding ground, and once safely across, they can take care of themselves. A turtle on the road does not need to be rescued or taken home. If you spot a turtle that has been hit by a car, notify a vet or rescue that can deal with the animal in a professional manner.

A common snapping turtle attempts to cross the road. Photo credit: Kathryn Carse

A common snapping turtle attempts to cross the road. Photo credit: Kathryn Carse

Leave the eggs where they lie: It’s not uncommon to come across turtle eggs, especially for gardeners. Many people feel these eggs need care, and so they remove them or try to take care of the eggs themselves, which can be detrimental to their survival. Reptile eggs require very specific conditions for hatching, and mother turtles will seek out nest sites that meet these conditions. Therefore, eggs are much more likely to survive in these locations with protection from predators and the elements. If you accidentally unearth a nest, try to gently rebury the eggs under loose soil. If the eggs must be moved, contact a local professional for help or advice.

Common snapping turtle hatching. Photo Credit: Karl Rebenstorf

Common snapping turtle hatching. Photo Credit: Karl Rebenstorf

The turtle can live happily in your yard: Many people are surprised to find turtles living in their yards. We think of turtles as living “somewhere in the wild”, and it’s hard to imagine our yard as a suitable habitat. But remember, many wild animals such as birds, squirrels, rodents, raccoons, and others live in our yards, and turtles fit right in with them, likely having lived in the area long before our houses were built. “Wild habitats” can also contain higher populations of predators, so sometimes our yard is safer for the turtle. A wildlife officer can be called to remove the turtle if absolutely necessary, otherwise that turtle may live a long and happy life on your property. Just keep an eye on pets and exercise caution when mowing the lawn.

Wild turtles should always be left wild. These animals make very poor pets as they require a special ranged diet, lots of space, artificial (or actual) sunlight and they can be messy animals and live a very long time (box turtles may live to be well over 80 years old!). Wild turtles can also pose the risk of carrying diseases, such as salmonella, so cleanliness must be practiced. The best way to help any wild turtle is to let it be. These animals have survived for about 220 million years without our help, and they certainly don’t need our care now. So remember, if you see a wild turtle, take your pictures and move on; he’s perfectly happy right where he is.

Eastern Box Turtle. Photo credit: Karl Rebenstorf

Eastern Box Turtle. Photo credit: Karl Rebenstorf

Reptiles: Bizarre and Beautiful

Are you looking to take your sweetheart somewhere extra special this Valentine’s Day? Then look no further than our annual reptile weekend, “Reptiles!: Bizarre and Beautiful”! Featuring live reptiles from all over the world, Reptile Weekend will put you eye to eye with some of the most unique animals on the planet, including the deadly monocled cobra and the mighty Galapagos tortoise among many others. Meet with a variety of reptile enthusiasts and learn about conservation initiatives to protect these scaly treasures. With games, crafts and live animal shows, Reptiles!: Bizarre and Beautiful is a great time for guests of all ages!