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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.

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