Snakes and Reptiles – An Unfortunate Misunderstanding

In general, reptiles are a misunderstood and much-maligned group of animals. Literature published as far back as 1735 describes reptiles as “foul and loathsome animals.” Unfortunately, this viewpoint is still held by many people today, especially when snakes are the reptiles being discussed. The unreasonable fear of snakes is quite prevalent in our society and there are many myths and misconceptions concerning snakes and their habits. The general public conception is that snakes are the “enemy” and should be killed on sight. This attitude still persists in spite of overwhelming evidence, both scientific and anecdotal, on the important roles that snakes play in a healthy ecosystem. Areas where snakes are removed often display a population explosion of rodents, usually to the detriment of nearby agricultural enterprises.


The news media also plays a role in shaping this attitude. Most publicity concerning snakes is of a negative nature. Venomous snakebites often receive extensive local media coverage far beyond the actual threat to human life. Rarely is it pointed out that the chances of death from a venomous snakebite are considerably less than the chances of dying from a lightning strike or from an insect bite (Bureau of Vital Statistics, Texas Department of Health).

Judith-blog-resizeOut of all snakes, the rattlesnakes probably have received more unjust notoriety and have been persecuted needlessly more than any other group, especially in the United States. It is doubtful that any other animal group is more feared or less understood by the general public. This persecution has reached such a point that, in some states, “Rattlesnake Roundups” are a popular fund-raising event for organizations such as the local Chamber of Commerce or the Jaycees. The largest of these roundups is held each March in Sweetwater, Texas. This event began in 1958 and was advertised as a method of controlling the rattlesnake population in the area. However, it has progressed to the point where now rattlesnakes are collected months in advance often from over 100 miles from Sweetwater. They are often collected by flushing them out of their dens and hiding areas with gasoline and other toxic substances, which not only harms the snakes, but also any other animals that may be in the same place. They are then kept in substandard conditions and are in poor health by the time the rattlesnake roundup is held. The snakes are often cruelly strung up alive, decapitated and skinned in front of crowds which include children. These horrific events are promoted as safe and educational family fun.

In April of 1999, the American Zoo and Aquarium Association adopted a resolution condemning rattlesnake round-ups and advising member institutions, such as the Houston Zoo, to oppose these activities. The Houston Zoo is joining with other Texas Zoos in their opposition to rattlesnake roundups and encourages educational alternatives that promote awareness and respect for these animals.

Judith-blog-resize2Slowly, however, the bad reputation that snakes have had is changing, even when rattlesnakes are involved. This can be seen in the ever-increasing numbers of successful herpetological societies that are being established in North America, and also by the increasing popularity of non-venomous snakes as pets.

If you’d like to learn more about these awesome and unique American critters, the second annual Texas Rattlesnake Festival will be held in Round Rock, Texas on April 11-12, 2015. No animals are killed, harmed, or abused. Instead, it is an educational event where people can learn about the different species of rattlesnakes in Texas and the beneficial role they play in a healthy ecosystem.

Then on June 12-14, 2015, the fourth annual Snake Days will be held in Sanderson, Texas. This one isn’t specifically about rattlesnakes, but about snakes in general. It includes a day of informative lectures by herpetologists, a photo contest, fake snake contest, vendors selling herpetology related products, and a fundraiser, proceeds of which benefit Texas Parks and Recreation’s Wildlife Diversity Department.

All animals have a role in their respective environments, including rattlesnakes. Please avoid roundups, support humane and educational events, and leave snakes alone if you find them in the wild. And of course, visit us here at the Houston Zoo where we love rattlesnakes! We have eleven species on exhibit and are always happy to talk to zoo guests about them.

Why You Should Not Be Afraid of Snakes

It’s October, Halloween is approaching, and you know what that means: Monsters! Ghosts! Goblins! Zombies! Snakes!!

Wait a minute, snakes? Why are snakes associated with Halloween and all these other scary things? Halloween comes in autumn, which is associated with cooler weather in many areas of the country, which means that snakes probably won’t even be out.

Cottonmouth snake
Cottonmouth snake

Snakes are some of the least understood, most feared, and most persecuted group of animals. It is estimated that over 50% of people are nervous or anxious in the presence of snakes while another 20% are absolutely terrified. Many people think that all snakes should be killed on sight, despite the fact that snakes play an important role in controlling rodent populations and only bite if they feel threatened. In fact, snakes will go to great lengths to be left alone! Have you ever thought about the rattles on a rattlesnake? Many people think the sound of the rattles is a sign of aggression from the snake when actually the opposite is true; this is the snake’s method of saying “I’m letting you know that I’m over here; please leave me alone.”

coral-snake-w
Coral snake

There are around 117 varieties of snakes in Texas and they range in size from less than 12 inches to almost 10 feet. The Houston area is home to 34 different types of snakes. Of these, only six are venomous. Of these six species, three (Western diamondback rattlesnake, pygmy rattlesnake, and the canebrake rattlesnake) have been pretty much exterminated in Houston and are almost never seen. The other three venomous snake species in Houston are the copperhead, the cottonmouth (a.k.a. water moccasin) and the Texas coral snake.

Southern Copperhead snake
Southern Copperhead snake

How can you tell these snakes from other snakes? The absolute best way is just to memorize what these three species look like, and then stay away from any snake that looks like them! When you think about the different things that people memorize every day (computer passwords, stats for all the Texan football players, etc.) it isn’t so difficult. Another general rule is to just leave any snake you see alone and let it go about its business; the snake will return the favor and leave you alone, also. And remember; statistics show that a person is over seven times more likely to die as a result of a lightning strike than from a venomous snake bite.

So, the next time you see a snake, don’t be afraid! Just leave it alone. However, as you walk away, you may want to say “thank you for helping to get rid of the rats and mice around here.”

Third Hatching of Endangered Madagascar Big-headed Turtles!

The Madagascar big-headed turtle was once widely distributed throughout the rivers and lakes of western Madagascar.  However, overexploitation from a growing human population has drastically reduced and fragmented its range.  One of the most endangered turtles in the world, this species is included on the Turtle Conservation Fund’s top 25 endangered turtles list and is listed as Critically Endangered by the IUCN.

big-headed-turtles-5

In December, 2005, two male and five juvenile female big-headed turtles were confiscated by the US Fish and Wildlife Service and donated to the Houston Zoo.  In 2008, these turtles were transferred to the moat surrounding the lemur display at the Zoo’s Wortham World of Primates.  In order to keep the turtles outside year-round, a swimming pool heater was installed to keep the moat warm during the winter months.  Since these turtles can be aggressive towards each other, underwater boxes fashioned from roofing tiles and bricks were added to the moat so that the turtles could hide in them when needed.

big-headed-turtles-2

Since the first egg hatched in September 2012, the Houston Zoo has now successfully hatched a total of 17 turtles from three different clutches.  The first clutch was laid and five turtles hatched in the lemur habitat inside a special nesting area prepared by the primate keepers.  Pictures of these hatchlings were posted on the Houston Zoo’s Facebook page and resulted in over 20,000 likes – the most recorded by any Houston Zoo animal!

big-headed-turtles-3

The second and third clutches were discovered by Zoo reptile & amphibian staff while they performed routine checks of the nest sites. These eggs were carefully dug up and incubated.  A second clutch was discovered on March 5, 2013 – three animals  hatched after 76 days on May 19.  The third clutch was discovered on June 22 and was divided into two groups.  One group  resulted in five hatchlings on August 22.  The second group was incubated at slightly lower temperatures to see what incubation temperature was most ideal.  Four turtles hatched from this group on September 4.

big-headed-turtles-4

Hatchlings have had an average weight of less than .02 pounds.  The average shell measurements were 1.3 inches long and 1 inch wide (that’s a tiny turtle!).  The young turtles began feeding immediately on a diet of aquatic turtle pellets and romaine lettuce.

This is believed to be the first time this species has reproduced in an institution accredited by the Association of Zoos and Aquariums, so needless to say, we’re pretty excited!

Notable Noses: Meet the Malay Gharial

Visit the Reptile & Amphibian Building to meet our Malay, or False gharial (Tomistoma schlegelii). It is a highly endangered crocodilian that once ranged throughout much of Malaysia, Indonesia, Thailand, Borneo, West Java and possibly Vietnam; preferred habitat appears to be tropical swamp forests. Their most distinctive feature is their long, narrow snout which makes them similar in appearance to another crocodilian species, the Gharial (Gavialis gangeticus) native to India.

Malay Gharial
Malay Gharial

As adults, Malay gharials can get quite large with males reaching over 5 meters in length while females are smaller. The females build large mound nests and can lay up to 60 large eggs at a time.

Hunting , habitat destruction, and other human pressures have resulted in the extirpation of Malay gharials in Vietnam and Thailand. Malay gharials now occur in only ten river drainage systems in their former historic range. The wild population is estimated to be no more than 2500 or fewer individuals. Malayan gharials are considered to be Critically Endangered by the IUCN and are listed as an endangered species by the United States and are also listed as Appendix I by CITES. The captive population in North America numbers around 40 animals in 14 institutions. Due to their large size and specific habitat requirements, this species has proven to be difficult to maintain and reproduce; there have only been four successful captive breedings in AZA institutions. Because of the small captive population, the AZA has designated the Malay gharial as an SSP red species.

The Houston Zoo has owned a female Malay gharial since 1974. However, due to its large size and our lack of proper facilities for large crocodilians, it has been out on loan since 1981 and currently resides at the Audubon Zoo in New Orleans where it is in a breeding situation. Fortunately, though, last October we were able to acquire a three year old animal which had hatched at the San Antonio Zoo. Since it is a juvenile, we will be able to adequately house this animal for the next several years in the Herpetology building, where it is currently on display.

The Malay gharial is located in the Reptile and Amphibian building in a large display along the back wall, directly behind the White alligator exhibit. While you’re in the building, take some extra time to view all the other interesting and colorful species we have on exhibit!

Our Tortoises Get More Room

Do you ever visit our tortoises here at the Houston Zoo? They are so cool and prehistoric looking.  It’s fascinating to see how they operate with what looks like a heavy shell and limited range of motion. But they can move pretty fast if they want to.

We’ve just expanded the tortoise habitat from the Duck Lake sidewalk near the Dolly’s Ride sculpture all the way around toward the food court. We’ve installed new grass and almost doubled their area. They move faster than you would think. Why don’t you stop by?

There are three kinds of Tortoises who live together there – Radiated tortoises, Galapagos tortoises and African spurred tortoises.  Let’s talk about the latter. The African spurred tortoise, Centrochelys (Geochelone sulcata), is a large tortoise found along the southern perimeter of the Sahara desert in Africa. It is the largest species of tortoise found in Africa and is surpassed only in size by the Galapagos tortoise and the Aldabra tortoise.

The African spurred tortoise

The species gets its name from several large prominent spurs that are located on the hind surfaces of the thighs on the rear legs. Males can be distinguished from females by having a pronounced concavity on the underside of their shells and by their larger tails. Adult males also are larger than females and can reach weights of up to 180 pounds, while females rarely get above 100 pounds.

Diet and Reproduction: In terms of diet, Spurred tortoises are largely herbivorous and will accept a wide variety of fruits and vegetables. At the zoo, they can often be seen grazing on the grass inside their enclosure. These animals are prolific diggers, and can dig burrows of over ten feet long. In the wild, Spurred tortoises breed between November and May and can lay on average anywhere from 13 to over 30 eggs.

The eggs take around 120 days to hatch and the young weigh around 50 grams each. Like other turtle and tortoise species, the Spurred tortoise exhibits what is called “TSD” or Temperature Sex Determination. The sex of an individual is determined not by sex chromosomes, but by the incubation temperature of the egg. Learn more about TSD!

Lifespan: African spurred tortoises can live a long time! Captive longevities of over a century have been reported, and there currently are a number of captive animals that are over 50 years old. Our animals at the zoo were acquired as young adults in 1988. Because of their long lifespan, the Spurred tortoise figures prominently in many animal legends among the native tribes occupying its home range.

The Galapagos tortoise

Spurred tortoises as pets: Spurred tortoises breed readily in captivity and hatchlings are often seen for sale in local pet shops. However, there are several things to consider before purchasing one:

1. Size. This species will grow to a large size very quickly, and adults are very powerful. They have been known to overturn central air conditioning units, and to dig extensive burrows underneath houses which can undermine the foundation. Spurred tortoises need a very large, secure area to roam and they also require an indoor area with heat when temperatures drop below 50° F.

2. Longevity: If properly cared for, there is a very good chance that the Spurred tortoise purchased will outlive the person who bought it in the first place. If you are buying a tortoise for a child, think about what you will do with the animal when the child grows up and goes away to college. A long-term plan is needed for keeping this species (note: the zoo does not accept Spurred tortoises as donations; we already have all we need).

3. Diet: These animals need proper nutrition in order to have normal shell growth. There are many captive turtles that have shell malformations due to poor diets. Even though they will eat a variety of different fruits and vegetables, the portions and the types have to be carefully monitored.

4. Lighting: Proper lighting also contributes to proper shell growth. Inadequate lighting also will result in shell deformities. Spurred tortoises need ample exposure to unfiltered sunlight.  When kept inside, they need special heat lamps that provide the necessary light wavelengths.

The World Chelonian Trust also provides useful information on caring for Spurred tortoises. Visit their website http://www.chelonia.org/articles/sulcatacare.htm if you’d like to learn more.

The Radiated tortoise

Please come and see our African spurred tortoises, along with Radiated tortoises and our Galapagos tortoises on your next visit and write us to let us know what you think.

Don’t miss a special evening with a  Galapagos tortoise researcher on December 9, 2011. Our Call of the Wild Speaker Series will feature Dr. Stephen Blake from the Max Planck Institute of Ornithology with a special introduction from Dr. Joe Flanagan, Director of Veterinary Services, Houston Zoo. Event begins at 7:00 p.m. Drinks and hors d’oerves will be served. CLICK HERE for tickets and information!

If you’d like to read about the Galapagos tortoise, click HERE to read our Dr. Joe’s blog series about his adventure to the Galapagos Islands and how he helped several Giant Tortoises!

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Action shot of our little Shallot by Mary from the hoofed stock team. We were going to make a (admittedly bad) joke about pigs flying, but Shallot doesnt need any help being adorable.

 

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