Reptile profiles: Program animals
The American Alligator is the only native crocodilian found in Georgia. They are found over much of Southern and Eastern Georgia but they are not historically found as far North as Atlanta. The closest locality for alligators is in the Ocmulgee River, just South of Macon. The alligator can reach massive size and length with the record being 20’. This is extremely rare and most often alligators are observed considerably smaller than this gargantuan size. Alligators are opportunistic predators feeding on a variety of species from turtles, frogs and fish to raccoons, deer and wading birds. Young alligators hatch out of eggs and the young are only about 12” in length and often they are black with bright yellow or white bands. I have a young alligator for education programs and the animal is a hit with participants as it is not often that one can get such a close look at a wonderfully successful creature that has been on the Earth in its current form and shape since the age of dinosaurs. This alligator as of August 2011 is about 4 feet in length. I have a permit from Georgia Department of Natural Resources that allows me to legally have an alligator for educational programs. The above alligator reached about 5 feet by 2012 and at that size they are very unpredictable and can be very dangerous. Due to my work with some large crocodilians while I worked at Zoo Atlanta back in the mid 1980’s, I have a very healthy respect for large crocodilians. Due to this, the above alligator was released in 2012. Below is a picture of him just prior to release…..to give you an idea of the growth rate of healthy alligators.
In June of 2011, I acquired a hatchling alligator that I am now using for programs. The baby alligator is extrmely “cute” and is a big hit with the children. This alligator hatched in early June and the photograph, below, was taken on August 26th and you can see just how small the alligator is as I am holding him in my hand. This alligator is now just over a year old and has remained gentle and is currently about 20 inches in length.
In July of 2012, I acquired two hatchling alligators. They are cute little gems and are about 13 inches in length.
Bearded dragons are absolutely delightful lizards and they have become a favorite pet of many people, especially children, with an interest in reptiles. Bearded dragons are from Australia and they are desert animals. They are highly variable in color but many tend to be light cream or sandy in color. They have small spines around their head, which is the reason they are called “bearded” and the term dragon is certainly Australian as a number of Australian lizards are referred to as dragons. Bearded dragons tend to be amazingly tame and thus are wonderful animals for lectures.
Bearded dragons derive their name from the beard that can be extended “at will” by the lizard. Typically this only occurs when the lizard is frightened or annoyed. Amazingly, this is most often a big bluff and even when in hand the lizard showing its beard, gaping showing its teeth and tongue…..rarely bites. Truely one of the most popular lizards in the pet industry today yet cute little baby bearded dragons grow quite fast and become large lizards in a fairly short period of time. Parents Beware! Baby beardies grow into large adults and should a bite from a large beardie occur on a small finger, it can be extremely painful and the beardies teeth can easily lacerate childrens fingers. Adult supervision is necessary when children have adult bearded dragons out of their cages.
The Blue-tongue skink is a large, shiny and smooth lizard with very short legs and a long heavy body. Due to this, they have an almost “snake-like” appearance. The blue-tongue skink is native to Australia as well as a few Islands north of the Australian continent. (New Guinea) They are highly omnivorous feeding on small rodents, bird’s eggs, as well as plant material like green leaves, fruits and vegetables. The blue-tongue gets its name due to its dark blue tongue which can be seen when a lizard is feeding and when the lizard is inspecting its surroundings. While holding a blue-tongue skink, the tongue is often observed as the lizard checks out the hand holding it. Blue-tongues are very unique and are a big hit with youngsters. They are one of my most favorite reptiles and mine are extremely gentle reptiles.
Uromastyx’s are large spiny tailed lizards from North Africa. They have a very blunt head that looks more “turtle like” than lizard like in head shape. The tail of the Uromastyx is very spiny and when frightened, uromastyxs thrash their tail and it can cut and scratch the hands of people when the lizard does not want to be held. Mali uromastyxs are basically vegetarians but they also enjoy catching crickets and other insects upon which they feed. This species is a wonderful lizard to show amazing adaptations for this species survival in very harsh environments of Saharan Desert regions of North Africa.
The plated lizard is found over much of southern and central Africa. Their scales are quite large and square which gives them their name……plated lizard. This is a wonderful lizard to illustrate the external ears of lizards as the ears are very large on this species. In addition, the gentle nature, fairly large size and very typical lizard shape makes this lizard a hit with children.
Black-throated Monitor Lizard
The black-throated monitor attains a very large size, over 4 feet in length and they are one of the most gentle of all montor lizard species. I have raised my black-throated monitor from a hatchling and even though he is only 4 months old, he is already well over 2 feet in length. Monitors are extremely interesting lizards and members of this family are the largest lizards on planet Earth. (Komodo Dragon and Crocodile Monitor) Monitor lizards have a very long forked tongue which they are constantly using to inspect their surroundings. The black-throated monitor is defintely an awesome creature and due to its size, it is a lizard that the children can see up fairly close but they cannot touch.
The head of the black-throated monitor. This species has a heavily sloped head that is quite robust and extremely durable. In the wild, these large lizards feed on anything they can over-power, including small mammals, birds, reptiles and carrion. Live prey is grabbed with a vice-like grip with extremely powerful jaws and the prey is literally bashed to death on rocks, the ground or other objects nearby. The monitors head has to be durable as it too takes a beating when the lizard is killing its prey. The scales on the black-throated monitor are very bead-like, which is quite evident on the neck of the lizard in the photograph.
The black-throated monitor is now just over two years old and is about 4 feet in length. He is extremely tame and currently weighs about 30 pounds. He is certainly one of my most intriqueing animals.
As you can see, I have complete faith in the big monitor lizard and having a big gentle monitor is a wonderful treat, not only for the children but for me as well. He truely is a tremendously impressive lizard.
I am currently using a big male iguana in my programs. He is about 5 feet in length and is amazingly gentle. He is a fairly old lizard but unlike most large male iguanas, he is extremely tame. These lizards can be extremely dangerous when wild and many captives never tame down. Even though this is a green iguana, you can see that the lizard is not green. Young iguanas are bright green and many adult females remain green as well. Large males may be orangish, reddish and sometimes even blue. When cold, even my orange iguana turns olive green which allows the lizard to take on as much external heat as possible. Many, many thanks to Rick McCarthy, of Cochran Mill Nature Center for providing me with this incredible iguana.
The head of a large male iguana is very impressive with a large dewlap, which hangs down below the chin. This lizard also has large dorsal spines but due to his age…..they now droop to the side. The nails of an iguana can be extremely sharp and I have to trim his nails about once per month to prevent him from tearing my clothes and skin when his is being held.
Iguanas are basically vegetarians and big ones have an amazingly voracious appetite. Squash is a big favorite of my iguana as are fresh green beans, collareds, kale and turnips greens.
Eastern King Snake
The Eastern King Snake is a beautiful glossy snake that gets fairly large with some individuals reaching 5 feet in length. Many of the king snakes in Central Georgia are black with a various pattern of bold white or yellow in a chain like pattern, thus they are also known as chain kings. I have a king snake that is almost 5 feet in length and is a wonderfully tame animal that is habituated to handling. King snakes are not venomous and they are a constrictor, which means they wrap around their prey and this is a means of suffocating the small rodents and snakes upon which they feed. The king snake, like other non-venomous snakes in Georgia are protected and I hold a permit from Georgia Department of Natural Resources that allows me to legally have a king snake for educational programs.
South Florida Kingsnake
The south Florida kingsnake is a very different snake in pattern and color from the closely related Eastern Kingsnake. This snake is found only in the extreme southern portion of Florida, including the Everglades. Historically, these snakes were found over much of the Miami area but due to habitat destruction, the former range is greatly reduced. These snakes get quite large with big individuals reaching 6 feet in length. The South Florida Kingsnake in my collection is about 4 feet in length.
Gray-banded Kingsnake (aka Blair’s Kingsnake)
The gray-banded kingsnake is one of North America’s most lovely creatures. These snakes are highly variable in coloration and the one above is a “Blair” phase. This species is very cryptic and they spend much of their time below ground in limestone fissures that abound in their habitat of the Chihuhuan Desert of Texas. During my 40+ years of hunting reptiles, I have been extremely fortunate to have found a number of these snakes in the Comstock area of West Texas. I really enjoy being able to share such a gorgeous snake in programs. The above grey-banded kingsnake is about 3 feet in length.
Mexican Gopher Snake
The Mexican gopher snake is a very large, non-venomous constrictor that, in the wild, feeds on rodents and small mammals. Gopher snakes, bull snakes and pine snakes are very closely related and the Mexican gopher snake is one of the most southerly forms. They are extremely strong constrictors and their scales are heavily keeled. In the wild, they are sometimes confused with rattlesnakes as they may be very heavy bodied, long and when unable to escape, they hiss and vibrate their tail rapidly and on dry ground the sound produced is similar to the sound made by a rattlesnake. The Mexican Gopher I use for programs is 7 feet in length.
The bull snake is a relative of the gopher and pine snakes. Bull snakes tend to get quite large and the bull snake in my collection is about 5 feet in length. They are very strong constrictors and are capable of hissing very loudly. In captivity, this defense behavior is lost as the snakes become very habituated to handling and thus make wonderful program animals. Like gopher and pine snakes, bull snakes also have keeled scales thus when touched, they are considerably more rough in texture than the kingsnakes, milk snakes and pythons.
Black Pine Snake
June 2012: I just acquired a baby black pine snake for future programs. Pine snakes grow extremely fast and this 15 inch snake will be well over 4 feet in length within a year. Young black pines exhibit a pattern of black blotches with light, almost chain like markings. As they mature, the pattern is very reduced or lost completely and the result is an all black snake. The black pine snake has a very small range being found only along the Gulf Coast of Alabama and Mississippi. Fortunately, most of the black pine snakes in captivity are a result of captive breeding, such as the animal in my collection.
Pine Snake: (Leucistic form)
The pine snake is one of Georgia’s largest snake species and large individuals may reach 7 feet in length. Pine snakes are rarely found as they spend much of their lives under-ground and people living in areas that support pine snakes often go through their entire life without ever seeing one. They feed on rodents which they hunt in subterranean tunnels. Pine snakes can put on quite a show when cornered. They hiss very loudly, gape (open their mouth) and will deliver a very long strike. When striking, a loud hiss is often heard which usually is extremely effective in warding off would be predators. Unfortunately, when a person finds a pine snake, the pine snake is usually killed. People not familiar with pine snakes typically contend the snake is venomous and thus they are killed. The pine snake I use for programs is leucistic……white with black eyes. This form is bred in captivity and my snake is from a snake breeder in Florida.
Albino Burmese Python
Burmese pythons have been the target of a great deal of media attention over the past decade. This due to both accidental escapes of captive animals, such as destruction of reptile facilities during hurricane land falls in south Florida as well as intentional releases of snakes that may have outgrown their welcome, as household pets in Florida. What-ever the circumstance, Burmese pythons are certainly an unwelcomed introduction in the State of Florida.
Burmese pythons, when appropriately cared for, tend to be very gentle large snakes that are wonderful program animals and work well in education programs. The albino characteristic is a genetic condition that once stemmed from just a few wild caught albino pythons. Today, albino Burmese pythons are as common as the normal color phase Burmese python. The white and yellow color and the pattern of the albino form is a striking combination resulting in a gorgeous creature. The albino Burmese python I use for programs is about 7 feet in length and is a nice animal for photographs with program participants.
The albino Burmese python below, is a rescued animal from Hurricane Katrina. This snake is about 11 feet in length and has a very slender head for a Burmese of this size. Due to his rescue story, he is a wonderful animal to educate children about the kindness of many people in caring for animals…..including large constrictors.
Big albino Burmese pythons are very attractive and impressive animals. Due to their albinism, the thermo recepting pits in the upper labials (lips) are highly visible. In addition, the males have large spurs located on each side of the cloaca thus numerous adaptations can be illustrated in educational programs in regards to these large snakes.
Burmese Python: Typical pattern and color
I also use a large, normal colored Burmese Python for programs and this snake is about 13 feet in length. He is extremely gentle and can be touched by program participants.
I have acquired two young green anacondas. A male on the right and female on the left. Females attain enormous size in both length and girth and my female is growing faster than any snake I have ever had the pleasure to work with. Green anacondas tend to be quite bad tempered snakes and thus are not used very often for programs. I am handling my two young anacondas daily and both are extremely gentle and I have already used the female in a few programs. One of my reasons for wanting to work with anacondas is because of the children………as I am frequently asked….DID YOU BRING AN ANACONDA? So, the snakes currently are fairly small but that will not last long and the female will certainly be 6 feet long by mid 2013. The male is nice to show as he is an indicator that great big snakes do begin life as pretty small creatures.
June 2012: I recently acquired a young blood python. Blood pythons are from Sumatra, Borneo and adjacent Indonesian Islands. They tend to be very heavy bodied snakes and large ones attain 6 feet in length with a tremendous girth. Blood pythons tend to be fairly aggressive biters and I am hopeful that by daily handling, the snake will become acclimated for programs. Currently, the snake is only about 18 inches in length but he is growing very rapidly. This snake is only available for school programs at this time.
Dumeril’s boas are snakes native to Madagascar. They are a medium size snake reaching a length of about 6 feet with occasional individuals reaching 7 or 8 feet in length. These snakes are attractive boids with a bold dark pattern on a lighter ground color. Typical of all boids, they are constrictors and are non-venomous. In Madagascar, many of the native reptiles are highly endangered due to habitat destruction. Dumeril’s boas are available in the U.S. due to captive breeding projects by zoos and private reptile keepers. Virtually all of the Durmeril’s boas in the pet trade are a result of captive breeding, which is very beneficial as remaining Durmil’s in Madagascar are no longer poached for the black market reptile trade. The Dumeril’s boa that I use for programs is about 6 feet in length and has a nice gentle disposition and is large enough to create excitement when-ever the snake is presented to a class, birthday party or scout group.
Sinaloa Milk (King) Snake
The Sinaloa milk snake is one of the largest and most beautiful of the milk snake clan. These gorgeous tri-colored king snakes typically have very wide red bands which make them extremely attractive. They can reach 5 feet in length and due to their docile nature, they are wonderful snakes for educational programs. This species derives its name from a state in Mexico……Sinaloa. Due to tri-colored kingsnakes being easily confused with the venomous coral snakes, these snakes are good examples of mimicry. Most children are familiar with mimicry in butterflies where there are a couple of non-poisonous species that mimic the poisonous Monarch Butterfly and thus are protected due to their similarity. This same type of mimicry applies to the tri-colored kingsnakes being similar to the coral snake. The Sinaloan Milk snake I use for programs is about 4 feet in length.
Pueblan Milk (King) Snake
The Pueblan king snake is a gorgeous, tri-colored snake with bands of red, black and yellowish white. The bands completely encircled the body making for a lovely pattern that also mimics venomous species of coral snakes. The name Pueblan is named for the area of Mexico where they are native. These non-venomous snakes are constrictors and they feed on reptiles as well as small rodents that they find in their nocturnal hunting forays. The Pueblan King Snake that I use for programs is about 3 feet in length.
Honduran Milk Snake
The Honduran Milk Snake is another tri-colored kingsnake but they often exhibit large amounts of orange, instead of white typical of many tri-colored kingsnakes. They are found, as their name suggests, in Honduras as well as adjacent countries of Nicaragua and extreme southern Belize. All three of the tri-colored kings that I use for programs are extremely gentle creatures although they tend to be fairly active and do not remain still very often when being held.
The corn snake is an extremely popular snake in reptile presentations and many nature centers have corn snakes as program animals. Corn snakes are native to Georgia and are found throughout much of the state. The brightly colored corn snake, such as the animal in my collection, is a coastal specimen from Wayne County, Ga. This snake has a wonderful history. I picked up a DOR (dead on road) adult female corn snake, late one night while snake hunting. I put the seemingly dead snake in my car as I salvage reptiles and collect data, such as GPS coords, and the specimens are deposited in the museum at the University of Florida. I picked up the dead snake but upon arriving home, the snake was not where I had placed it. The snake have revived but was mortally injured. Just prior to its death, 2 days later, the snake laid 20 eggs. I hatched out some gorgeous little corn snakes and kept one for programs. The others were taken back to Wayne County and released at the site where I found the female.
The boa constrictor is large non-venomous snake from the Neo-tropics, being found from Mexico south through Central America and South to Southern Brazil. These snakes can attain a fairly large size in both length and girth with exceptionally large ones attain a length of about 15 feet. The boa that I use for programs is extremely gentle and she is about 12 feet in length and weighs over 50 pounds. She is an incredibly gentle creature and she is frequently the snake chosen by parents, teachers, scout masters and educators as the snake to be the center of a group photograph. She is certainly an impressive creature and is a big hit with program participants, who are permitted to touch this amazing animal.
The spur-thighed tortoise is a large species found in West Africa. These big tortoises dig deep burrows and their large front legs and feet are designed for digging. In addition, when the tortoise is frightened, he pulls his head inside and the spurred front legs cover the head, thus protecting it. These chelonids are long lived and they get very large. The tortoise I use for programs weighs about 35 pounds as of 2011 and he is a big hit with the children.
As of December 2012, the African Spur-thighed tortoise now weighs about 50 pounds. Like the big iguana, she also is a vegetarian with a tremendous appetite.
The gopher tortoise is a protected species in Georgia and it is Georgia’s State Reptile. They are found in Sandhill habitats of the coastal plain of Georgia and their populations are greatly reduced due to habitat destruction. They are burrowers, digging deep burrows into the sand. Their burrows provide refuge for over 100 species of invertebrates and vertebrates including other threatened species like gopher frogs, indigo snakes and eastern diamondback rattlesnakes. It is a pleasure for me to be able to help educate program participants about some of Georgia’s endangered and threatened reptiles. Many thanks to Georgia Department of Natural Resources, non-game division for their assistance in helping me to procure specimens for my education efforts.
The horned frog is native to South America and is commonly found in the Amazon Basin. The horned frog gets quite large and gets its name due to the projections above each eye……appearing almost like horns. The horned frog has very short legs and frequently walks instead of using the typically locomotion of most frogs, which is leaping or jumping. Horned frogs are very aggressive feeders and feed on a great variety of animals. Insects, small reptiles, other frogs and even small rodents are all on the dinner menu for horned frogs. The horned frog is able to eat such things because their mouths are very large and if the frog can get it into their mouth….they will eat it.
Chilean Rose-hair Tarantula
The Chilean rose-hair tarantula is a medium sized tarantula, with large hairy legs and bronzy head with a large bulbous abdomen. They are from South America and although they appear quite formidable, they are very gentle spiders and are a wonderful species to use for educational programs. The Chilean rose-hair is an awesome creature….as the kids say and it is one of my grandson’s favorite creatures in my critter collection.
Scorpions…….!!!!!!! Not many people have affection for scorpions but they are some of the most successful creatures on planet Earth. They are in their present form, completely unchanged for millions of years. Scorpions are predators of insects, spiders and some even feed on other scorpions. In turn, they are food for many species and on the Galapagos Islands, there is a gecko species whose preferred food is scorpions. The big emperor scorpion is a gentle scorpion that rarely uses its sting in defense and when it does, its sting is no worse than a bee sting. Due to their massive size, the emperor scorpion is a wonderful species for education and under a black light, emperor scorpions “glow” a beautiful lime green color. All scorpions are flouresent under ultraviolet light.