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Cold Blooded Creatures

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

Happy “Newt” Year!

The Virginia Living Museum herpetology department would like to wish you and your family a “Hoppy” New Year! We have been working hard for the upcoming year of exciting events, and hope you will be joining us for these fun dates (and more terrible puns)!

Reptiles: Bizarre and Beautiful, our annual Reptile Weekend will take place February 14th-16th. Featuring native and exotic reptiles from around the world, Reptile Weekend will allow you and your family to get an up close encounter with this amazing group of animals. Discover the similarities and differences between venomous and nonvenomous snakes, observe rare and endangered reptiles like the Galapagos Tortoise, and learn what you can do to protect these bizarre and beautiful creatures. With everything from crafts to animal shows, Reptiles: Bizarre and Beautiful is fun for the whole family!

The VLM is very excited to announce that it will be hosting a special summer exhibit in our changing exhibit gallery: Frogs: A Chorus of Colors. Provided by Clyde Peeling’s Reptiland, Frogs: A Chorus of Colors is a blockbuster exhibition featuring over 70 live frogs from around the world! Come experience the world of frogs like never before through visually stunning exhibits and interactive games and activities! March 14th-September 7th.


Keep an eye out this spring when the VLM opens its FrogWatch USA program to the public! If you have ever wanted to identify frogs and their calls, come join us for this unique citizen science experience! FrogWatch USA is an AZA (Association of Zoos and Aquariums) conservation initiative to study frog and toad populations across the country just by tracking their calls! Whether you enjoy observing local amphibians or simply want to take part in an active scientific study, FrogWatch USA is an amazing experience that will open your eyes to the world of frogs right in your own backyard!

Can’t get enough of reptiles and amphibians?! Here are a few more fun holidays you can add to your calendar!:

Save the Frogs Day: April 25th

World Turtle Day: May 23rd

World Snake Day: July 16th

World Lizard Day: August 14th

National Iguana Awareness Day: September 6th

National Newt Day: September 7th

Reptile Awareness Day: October 21st

National Croc Day: October 23rd

Month of October: Croctober

Where Did Everybody Go?

It’s getting pretty cold out there, and as you’ve seen birds migrating south for the winter and local mammals bedding down for hibernation, you may have noticed that the native reptiles and amphibians have vanished as well. No more frogs and toads calling in the evenings, no turtles basking on logs in the local ponds, and even the little skinks skittering for food between the rocks have disappeared. So where did everybody go? What do reptiles and amphibians do all winter long?

Short answer: They hibernate! Like mammals, reptiles and amphibians hunker down for the winter, decreasing their body temperature, heart rate, and rate of digestion. Also like mammals, the fat they have been storing all summer long will keep them nourished through the long winter.

Turtles will retreat to the muddy bottom of local ponds and lakes, where their body temperature will be the same as the temperature of the surrounding water (generally around 40 degrees F). But they are not completely dormant; recent studies have shown that, while slowed down, turtles are still active during the winter, and can even be observed swimming below the ice. These animals can absorb oxygen through their skin so they don’t need to surface. The Eastern Painted Turtle can actually survive long periods without oxygen, and may go without taking a breath for up to five months!

A snapping turtle lumbering beneath the ice. Wisconsin DNR Photo.

A snapping turtle lumbering beneath the ice. Wisconsin DNR Photo.

Snakes will make use of burrows or rocky crevices to protect them from the cold. While they may hide away in solitude, many species will hibernate together in a big knot, where their close proximity will keep each other from completely freezing. These group hibernation sites are called a hibernaculum, and these hibernaculum sites may house multiple species, including venomous and non-venomous snakes together. In extreme cases, scientists have found as many as one hundred snakes sharing the same cave during the winter season! When spring arrives, the snakes emerge to bask and warm themselves in the sun.

Two Dekay’s Snakes huddle together to protect themselves from the cold.

Aquatic frogs and salamanders will also hibernate in the muddy bottom of ponds. Here they will absorb oxygen through their skin from the mud that surrounds them, rather than using their lungs. Terrestrial frogs, toads and salamanders will lie dormant under leaf litter and logs, and will keep themselves warm under the blanket of snow. Some frogs have taken their hibernation practice to the extreme; the Wood Frog, native to Virginia but found as far north as Alaska, is known for its incredible ability to freeze the majority of its body, even stopping its heart from beating! Natural antifreeze keeps ice from forming inside the frog’s cells, and when the weather warms up, the wood frog thaws out and beings looking for food and a mate.

Though it may appear dead, this Wood Frog will reawaken in the spring.

Though it may appear dead, this Wood Frog will reawaken in the spring. Photo by Janet Storey.

Though they may be out of our sight, our reptile and amphibian friends are still here, buried beneath our feet or submerged in the local ponds. Though cold blooded, these creatures are well adapted to our harsh winters, and you can bet that you will see them again early next spring!

Not Your Routine Physical

Every reptile and amphibian here at the VLM requires the occasional check-up. Weights are taken, important blood work is done, and other necessary procedures provide our animals with the best quality care we can provide. But these physicals are much easier said than done, especially when your patient is…

…A juvenile American Alligator!

Getting the alligator (Alligator mississippiensis) prepared for his annual physical is no easy task; he must be taken off exhibit and moved to another building for his check-up, after which he must be returned to his home in the Cypress Swamp Habitarium. So how does this transfer take place? First, our Herpetology Curator, Travis, uses what is known as a catch pole to pull the gator up onto the shore. The bony plates on the gator’s neck, called osteoderms, are incredibly hard, so the gator is not hurt by the catch pole.

You will see that I am balancing on the wall behind Travis. I am preparing to secure the gator once he has it  safely on shore. Very carefully (but with haste) I drop down on the gator, securing it in place to prevent injury to the animal and us keepers. Adrienne and Sonya stand by as “spotters”, ready to leap into action in the event of an emergency.

Once caught, we move quickly to secure the jaws with tape. Now the vet can work safely without risk of a crushing bite!

The gator is then lifted by all staff and carried to a large, wooden transport box. Once safely inside the box, he will be taken over to the clinic in the Education Center for his appointment.

Check up time! With the help of herpetology staff and our VLM Vet Tech Linda, a vet gets to work drawing blood, taking measurements, and ensuring the gator is the picture of health. Because appointments like these are infrequent, the vet must collect as much information as she possibly can now.

Before being returned to his exhibit, a length and weight are taken to insure he is growing properly. This alligator is 82 inches long (6’10”) and a whopping 105 pounds! Right on track for a growing gator his age!

After a flawless procedure, all that remains is to see the gator safely home to his exhibit. He is again secured in his transport crate and moved to the main building swamp habitarium. There, the keepers carry him back into his exhibit, remove the tape, and prepare him for release.

There’s one healthy alligator! Good work, Herp Staff! (And all fingers and toes accounted for!)

A huge thanks to Dr. Cisco, Linda Addison and her crew, and Karl Rebenstorf for his amazing photography (as always!).

Hidden in Plain Sight

New species of reptiles and amphibians are being discovered all the time, but you don’t have to travel to remote jungles in distant countries to find them. The newly named Lithobates kauffeldi, the Atlantic Coast Leopard Frog, was recently discovered on Staten Island, New York, and is now verified to be in several states along the East Coast, including Virginia. The new species’ name was released October 29th, in honor of Carl Kauffeld, the man who discovered the species over 80 years ago, but was widely dismissed by the scientific community.

So how did a new species of frog turn up in the urban Northeast? It was purely by accident; during a study conducted on Staten Island investigating the steady decline of frogs, the researchers heard an usual cluck-like call. The call was similar to the laughing chortle of the Southern Leopard frog, however it was much shorter in duration, and was immediately recognized as being out of place. Other recordings dating back as far as 2003 confirmed that the call was not a single anomaly, but that the mystery callers were widespread.

The new Atlantic Coast Leopard Frog is what is known as a “cryptic species”, meaning it is very difficult to tell it apart from other leopard frogs. The call is the most obvious give away, and, beside from the distinct pattern on the hind legs, is virtually indistinguishable from other native leopard frog species.

What makes the new species very interesting and unique is their habitat. The frogs are turning up in areas that are more urban, even those areas just outside New York City. The leopard frog is a very sensitive species, and many herpetologists are intrigued to be finding them in industrial wetlands. It’s very encouraging to find such a sensitive species thriving so close to massive human populations.

So be sure to keep your eyes (and ears!) open the next time you go for a walk in your neighborhood. You never know where the next new species will turn up!

Southern Leopard Frog Photo Credit: Karl Rebenstorf

Southern Leopard Frog
Photo Credit: Karl Rebenstorf

Check Out What’s “Hoppening” at the VLM!

What better way to start off the newest Virginia Living Museum blog than by inviting you and your family to one of our newest annual events? Come visit the VLM on Saturday, November 8th, for the second annual Frogs and Friends Day! Leap into the exciting world of amphibians and get an up close encounter with some of our native, and not-so-native, frogs and salamanders. Check out what lives inside a rotting log and attend a story reading, all while learning what you can do to help conserve these amazing animals!

Photo Credit: Karl Rebenstorf

Photo Credit: Karl Rebenstorf