Introducing the Reptiles The family of reptiles is made up of turtles, lizards, snakes, different kinds of crocodiles, and a small group in Southeast Asia called tuataras. Some people think that snakes and lizards are slimy, but all reptiles are covered with dry, horny scales. These scales might be hard to notice for animals like the turtle, whose large scales (or plates) have grown together into one hard shell. Not only have the plates grown together, but the turtle's backbone has also grown into the shell! All reptiles have to be really aware of how cold or hot they get, for their body temperature depends on the temperature of their surroundings. They spend much of their time doing two things: looking (or waiting) for food, and moving between sunny spots and shady (or wet) spots to warm up or cool off. If a reptile gets too warm, they can get very sick, and if it gets too cool, it is hard for the animal to have enough energy to move to a warmer spot. These warm spots are often the places that you find reptiles: turtles that come out of the water to sit on a rock or tree branch, and lizards that sit on a fence or sunny wall in order to catch the rays of the sun. Sometimes this search for warmth can dangerous, like the snakes that lie on a warm road at night. Reptiles have some interesting ways to communicate with each other. People communicate by talking, and reptiles also make all kinds of noises to each other. Baby alligators start chirping just before they hatch from their egg, in order to tell their mother that it is time to dig them out of their dirt nest and bring them to the water. Male alligators can make an enormously loud bellowing noise, kind of like a big engine! They also raise their heads and slap the water loudly with their chins in order to chase other male alligators away. Lizards also chirp and bark at each other, and some male lizards nod to each other, bobbing their heads up and down vigorously. Snakes are generally silent, and use their tongues not to communicate but only to smell. However, a frightened snake will hiss or rattle to as a warning. How do reptiles defend themselves when they are frightened? The biggest alligators don't have to defend themselves from anyone except man, but smaller alligators are defended by their mothers until they are more than a year old. Many lizards have tails that break off to let the lizard escape when it is in trouble, and another tail regrows later. One lizard even wiggles its tail, breaks it off himself, and the tail continues to wriggle for a few minutes to make the predator go after the tail rather than the lizard. Many frightened snakes will play dead until they think the threat has gone away. The Eastern Hognose snake is among the best at this playacting: when scared, it first flattens its head like a cobra and hisses loudly, then, if it needs to, rolls over, moves around as if it was wounded, sticks out its tongue, and plays dead. These fun facts are just a glimpse into a whole world of fascinating behaviors and unusual animals in the reptile family. Find out more information about your favorite reptile at the local library, or on the Internet! Understanding Reptiles Did you think a frog is a reptile? Maybe it would help to learn the difference in reptiles and amphibians. Amphibians can't travel far from a water source because their skin would dry out. Their eggs wouldn't survive either since they must be laid in water. Reptiles, on the other hand, already have tough hard scaly skin. Snakes are well-known and feared reptiles. Many people simply misunderstand the snake. It's a benefit to the balance of nature. They consume rodents, amphibians, and insects as well as providing a source of food to other animals. They're valuable additions to our animal world because of the importance as predators and as prey. Many people kill snakes without knowing whether or not they are dangerous. Some snakes are "good" snakes in the way that they kill the bad snakes. Those annoying mice are controlled because of the snake population, too. But before you decide that you'd rather have a bigger mouse population than snakes, you would surely agree that everything was created for a reason. Just because you may be scared of something does not mean it is less important to our world. Have you ever struck out in fear, by instinct or reflex? Sometimes a reptile is forced to do the same thing in order to survive. It doesn't stop to think first because the time could cost it a life. Snakes do not strike out because they hate humans, lizards do not bite because they are holding a grudge, snapping turtles do not snap because they don't like the blouse you decided to wear today. A reptile attacks because it feels threatened or because it is hungry. If you live in an area where the venomous snake population is higher than normal or maybe your chance of coming into contact with such is higher, you may want to purchase a Sawyer Pump Extractor. This handy little machine suctions out the venom from the bite, reducing your chances of more serious illness or death. There are some helpful do's and don'ts to know once you've been bit. Of course, you should get away from the snake first. Although it is scary, you will less affected if you can make yourself stay as calm as possible. Remove jewelry that may become binding should your arm or hand swell from a bite. Wrap a wide band of material or elastic bandage above the bite area and leave in place until proper medical help is achieved. Do not wrap this too tightly. Alert an emergency center of your upcoming visit if possible. Don't take any alcohol or drugs as this may interfere with your treatment once you arrive at the medical center. It could also inhibit your ability to get there if you are forced to drive yourself. Applying ice or electric shock of any kind is not advised. It will help to pay attention to the reptile that bit you so that you can relate the information to the medical personnel when you get help. It may help them identify your needs quicker. Watch out for Reptiles! Reptiles seem more like creatures from another planet than any other animal, and snakes even more so. Snakes are cold-blooded, they move in very unusual ways, and they have more old wives' tales about them than nearly any other animal (except maybe the wolf). This introduction to the behavior of the American rattler should de-mystify most of the ideas that you have about this fascinating group of reptiles. Many of the smaller reptiles, like lizards, startle easily and are more difficult to observe in their natural habitat. Observing a rattler might be easier than other animals, for its major senses are its sense of smell, detection of vibration, and heat detection. Much of a rattler's waking hours is consumed by waiting for food. They get their food by sitting and waiting, rather than chasing after their prey. Several nights may go by when no potential prey comes near, and so a rattler needs to be patient. He comes out as the sun is setting and the desert begins to cool, and slides across sand and several rocks until he finds an area that smells strongly of rodents, or perhaps a hunting area that has been successful in the past. The rattler coils up in some low vegetation, or near the side of a rock. The top several inches of his body are not coiled, but have a few shallow bends in his neck so that he can strike quickly when prey comes by. His head rests on his coiled body. If no prey comes by, eventually the rattler's body temperature gets low enough that he needs to make a return journey, and so the rattler will make the return journey at that time. When a small animal appears, for example a desert mouse, the rattler may be alerted by the vibrations made as the mouse scurries along the ground. Its tongue will pick up the scent of the mouse, and there are extremely sensitive organs of smell in the roof of a rattler's mouth. In order to determine where to strike, the rattler uses the pits on its head. These pits determine where the heat source, the mouse, is. If the mouse is slightly too far away to strike, the rattler will slowly and quietly move in a straight line toward the mouse, so that the mouse will not detect any sound or movement. The snake normally does not use the normal side to side motion for stalking prey, as it attracts too much attention. When the mouse is close enough, the rattler strikes. As it strikes, its mouth opens wide and the fangs drop down and forward, so that the fangs point directly at the mouse. As its mouth closes on the mouse, the venom is pumped through its fangs into the mouse. The snake then reopens it mouth and lets the mouse go. After a few minutes the snake assumes the mouse has died, and moves around using its tongue to smell for the location of the mouse's body. If you look at a snake after it has eaten, you can usually see a small (or large) bump that gradually decreases as it progresses into the stomach. The time the snake takes from first noticing the mouse to swallowing it may be as long as an hour. Enjoy learning about rattlers, but if you see one, remember to watch it from a very safe distance. Reptiles Have Special Needs People have all kinds of different pets. Some people only feel safe with what is considered "normal" pets. This usually consists of cats, dogs, hamsters, or birds. Country folks may have farmyard animals for pets. Horses, cows, goats, bunnies, and so on are typical. Then you have the people who pride themselves on being "outside the norm". These people may be the sort who likes to consider themselves and their pets unique. Or maybe they just love animals of all kinds and welcome any and all types as pets. Reptiles have been kept as pets for many years, but as the number of pet stores has grown so has the number of reptiles kept as pets. Sometimes this is bad news for the reptiles. If a dangerous reptile is chosen, it could be bad news for the owner as well. Sometimes the type of pet a person has depends on the area in which they live. Availability may make the choice for them. Environment is also a consideration. In south Louisiana, a child may be raised thinking an alligator is normal to keep for a pet! It would be impractical for a child who lives in the midst of the city to own a pet cow. What types of reptiles are popular as exotic pets? Snakes, lizards and turtles make the choices wide. There are some, however, of each type that makes some better choices than others. Unfortunately, these types of pets are also the most often abused and neglected simply because of failure to learn about their proper needs prior to ownership. Once the new wears off, they become forgotten. Because reptiles are often quiet and contained, it is easy to forget they are around. Corn snakes are often chosen because they are known to be easier to care for. They are excellent escape artists, though, so great care must be taken to keep the latches tightly closed on their enclosures. It may seem funny in the movies to see a snake escape and scare the family or guests, but it can cause great harm to your pet in reality. Boas are a well-known reptile pet, but people often underestimate their lifespan and their great size when grown. A snake kept in an area it has outgrown will not be a happy, well-adjusted pet. It may cause the snake harm and you as well, should he choose to fight back because of his discomfort. Those cute little reptiles grow up and will need different requirements for food and housing as they grow. A responsible pet owner will be prepared for the changes and willing to accommodate. Can you recreate the natural environment and maintain it? Think of it as being a person from the country who moves to the city, unwillingly, and never learns to adjust because they just don't seem to fit into the new surroundings. Except this person has the ability to move back to the country, while the snake is unable to make this choice on his own. The right housing makes a happier pet. Learning about Reptiles Children often, at one time or another, will have an interest in learning about reptiles. Even if they are only vaguely interested, it is helpful to teach them should they ever encounter a reptile in the wild or at a relative or friend's house. It is quite possible to encounter a reptile even if one has lived within the confines of the city one's entire life. Children are not the only ones who can benefit from learning about reptiles, of course. Adults should at least learn some basic information even if they never have the slightest desire to come in contact with a reptile. You may be one of the fortunate people who enjoy animals of all kinds and soak up information like a sponge. If you are planning a career in animal care or with some other form of contact, you would do well to learn about reptiles even if your specialty will not lie with reptiles. You may be surprised when the information comes in handy later on in life. If you've ever entertained the idea of owning a turtle, which is quite a common occurrence in children raised in the country setting, you may be interested in knowing there are several types to choose from. There are four kinds of painted turtles in the United States for a good pet choice. The Eastern box turtle is also a popular choice for people to have as pets. Not all turtles are the same or require exactly the same care, but most turtles usually feed on snails, worms, and plants. Country kids will often capture a garter snake at some point and try to keep it as a pet. A garter snake needs access to water. They like to eat fish. Snakes often need less food than other reptiles, sometimes eating only once a year if it is a big snake and have had a big meal. Of course, smaller snakes are not quite as fortunate as they aren't able to consume as much at one time. But because the snake requires feeding less often, it takes a little effort on the part of the owner to remember to feed them because of the time lapse between feedings. Obvious places to learn about reptiles are zoos. This is certainly a much safer choice than deciding to take it upon yourself to get your experience first-hand by capturing a reptile in the wild! The experts on television make it seem easy, but they also advise against trying such stunts at home for a very good reason. Snakes are not the only dangerous reptile and not all snakes are dangerous. Other places to learn about reptiles include museums, summer camps, books, vet pamphlets, bookstores, libraries, safaris, a trip to the jungle, and museums. Natural science museums offer great displays and information about reptiles from long ago and those in the present. You could encourage your child's interest in reptiles in many ways, but remember to educate them as to the possible dangers of close encounters. Which Reptiles Do Not Make Good Pets? Basically, any reptile that is caught in the wild is discouraged for use as a pet. It is cruel for a reptile to be removed from its natural environment, for it to be thrust into captivity against its will, just so someone can say they own it as a pet. If you must have a reptile for a pet, buy one that was raised or born in captivity. Compared to lizards and turtles/tortoises, snakes tend to be easier pets for kids to raise. Just make sure your child is old enough to be properly educated in the handling of the reptile for the child's safety and the reptile's safety as well. Because reptiles carry salmonella, it is essential that any person who handles the creature either wear gloves or wash their hands immediately after putting the reptile back into its housing. But there are some lizards, turtles/tortoises, and snakes that are truly not suitable for pets. Although it is possible to keep them in captivity, it is better for the reptile to respect that it is meant to be kept in the wild. Burmese pythons can certainly become tame enough to make good pets; however, the cute little baby will grow into a very huge adult. The size alone, once it is grown, will make it less suitable to keep as a pet. The African Rock Python and the Reticulated Python have been known to be kept as pets, but their temperament makes it more of a challenge. Just because they are so cute as babies, it doesn't mean they will still be appealing as adults. The price should not be your only decision in owning one of these reptiles. Pet shops will often sell low cost animals that often turn into high cost maintenance, which certainly enhances the chance of return business. But it is really unfair to the unsuspecting consumer. Imported reptiles such as the pythons are often sold with problems that occurred before or during transport. The prospective owner must be well-educated to be able to spot any deficiencies in the animal prior to purchase. Mites, ticks, dehydration and emaciation are some of the possible problems. Green anoles are sold at a low cost, but their set up can be expensive. Anoles tend to be caught wild which means parasite infestation is more likely; and they don't like to be handled. Wild-caught ball pythons are known to have heavy parasite infestation and are picky eaters. Their stress during shipping causes trauma, which affects their temperament, appetite, and overall health. Captive hatched or farm raised are still imported and still suffer from shipping distress. Wild-caught chameleons suffer stress, parasite, and crowding from being imported as well. They are an antisocial creature even without the added negative aspects caused by shipping, so a beginning reptile owner would find this animal a disappointing challenge. They don't react well to everyday household noises like children, other animals, vacuum cleaners, loud radios, and so on. It's not a guarantee that they'll be happy when housed with other chameleons either because they aren't even sociable with their own kind. Other reptiles which do not make good pets, especially for a beginner, are Tokay geckos, caymans, and alligators. They are quick, aggressive, and very strong animals. Make sure you know what you're getting before you invest your hard-earned money into the cute little pet shop reptile! Safety With Reptiles Reptiles are animals to be respected. Many people think it's funny to irritate a reptile to get a reaction. These same people probably have the pet peeve of others irritating them to get a reaction. It's the idea of dishing it out and not being able to take it. Please put yourself in the reptile's place. While they may not exhibit emotions other than what seems like anger, they are living beings that deserve to be treated in a kind way. It is illegal in many places to hold a reptile captive, even if you consider yourself to be taking good proper care of the animal. You may need a license or permit to be able to take care of it, even if you are trying to "save" it because of obvious injury or illness. It is best to contact a wildlife rehabilitator any time you see a wild animal in distress. If you can't find a wildlife rehabilitator, perhaps you could call a game warden or a nearby zoo or vet for further aid. Collection and transport of reptiles can cause damage or trauma. This may make the reptile more apt to strike out in defense upon any close contact. Would you be a bit annoyed if someone removed you against your will to put you in an unfamiliar place? It is best for the animal if it is allowed to stay in the environment to which it is accustomed when possible. If you do happen to be unable to resist the urge to capture a wild reptile and later decide it wasn't such a good idea after all, please contact someone who would be qualified to take over its care. Wildlife animal refuges and zoos are equipped for the care of reptiles and may be happy to assist to keep the animal alive and well. If you know of a reptile that is being abused or neglected because of improper care or treatment, you could try contacting a society for the prevention of cruelty to animals. Your local veterinarian's office, game warden, zoo, or animal shelter should be able to direct you to the right phone number or address of the nearest office for complaints. Should you be uncomfortable with providing your name, make it known from the start. It is understandable to want to keep yourself protected from an irritable owner caught by authorities for cruelty. But please, don't let this stop you from helping the poor unwilling creature. There are ways to protect yourself and reach out to help. The exotic pet trade is big business that uses clever marketing techniques to snare people's interest in reptiles. Some people want the exotic pet as a hobby, a novelty item, or a status symbol. It may present the element of class or style they mistakenly wish to portray. The animal is the one that suffers when the interest has grown dim, and the excitement has worn off. Safety with reptiles is not just about safety for the humans who are interested in handling the reptiles. It's also about the safety of the reptiles themselves. The Slow and Steady Reptile: the Turtle Of all the reptiles that can be found in an average neighborhood, turtles are probably the easiest to catch. Let's take a tour of a turtle and see what we can learn from it. One of the most interesting parts of the turtle is the most obvious, its shell. The back of a turtle shell is formed from bones that have fused together into a hard structure. On top of the bone layer are large scales that cover and protect the surface of the bone, and give the turtle its distinctive color. Some sea turtles have shells with bones that are separated, and the leatherback turtle has no scales at all, just leathery skin with little bony plates distributed in its skin. The shells of land turtles are typically quite high and round, in order to discourage predators from attempting to crush the shells in their mouths. Water turtles generally have much flatter shells, in order to allow for faster swimming. The bottom of the shell, called the plastron, is also fused bone, but it is covered with a different kind of scale, in order for the turtle to move easily over its territory. A few turtles, such as the American box turtle, have hinges on the bottom of its shell. The box shell turtle can withdraw into the shell and then close the hinges, so that no predator can reach any of the turtle within. These hinges also protect against moisture loss on particularly dry days. Like many other reptiles, turtles lay their eggs on land. Baby turtles generally grow rapidly until they reach young adulthood, and then the rate of growth slows. Large turtles often keep growing at a slow rate for their entire life. The shells of most turtles grow to at least five inches in diameter, and the monster of the turtle family is the Leatherback, which can have a shell six feet long and weigh up to fifteen hundred pounds. One of the larger common American turtles is the Alligator snapping turtle, which can have a shell of over two feet in length and weigh up to two hundred pounds. It is easier to tell the age of turtles than most other reptiles because the plates on their back often have growth rings, similar to trees. Each time a turtle stops growing it creates a depression in each scale, and so these can be counted to determine the age of the turtle. A number of turtles have lived for more than one hundred years, and turtles might be the longest-lived vertebrates, up to two hundred years old. Some American families carved their names and dates into box turtle shells, and these markers indicate that even local turtles can live to be more than one hundred years old. Next time you see a turtle, check it out carefully. Watch how slowly it walks (generally at about one third of a mile an hour), and look carefully at the markings on its shell. Turn it over to see the underside of the shell, and how the two connect. See if you can see any markings on the shell to count how old it is. Check out other interesting facts and behaviors about the turtles in your area at your local library or bookstore. Reptile Accessories and Supplies Large reptiles need large cages or other enclosures. They will also need bedding, a water source, tunnel logs, rocks, trees, steps, plants, a ground cover of some sort for the bottom of their enclosure, and more food than a small pet. The costs can add up before you realize it! But once you have taken care of the initial investment, the big worry lies in being able to provide the proper amount and type of food and bedding. Vet care should also be considered. If you can't afford to have the reptile treated, you may want to pass on adding it to your home. If you're interested in keeping a snake for a pet, you may want to consider the cost and accessibility of the food necessary for the reptile's survival. Do you have freezer room and a strong stomach for the little frozen mice and rats you'll need to feed your pet? Mice and rats can cost up to $1.50 each, with the average snake needing 4 a month. Distilled drinking water costs from 58 cents to $1 per gallon and should last a month just for drinking. Of course, if you have a large snake, you'll need a large source of water for its bathing. You should plan on spending at least $100 for the corn snake aquarium, rocks, heat source, water dish, and two pieces of indoor/outdoor carpet for the floor. The carpet is the most economical investment for bedding as it can be washed and reused, keeping one piece clean at all times. The corn snake itself can cost from $20 to $350, depending on what type you choose. Pet care books are available at local libraries. But if you can't find the one you want, they cost less than $10 even in most pet stores and can be purchases at local discount stores. Filters for turtle aquariums can cost from $18 to $30. Food for iguanas can become costly as they need fresh fruits and vegetables on a regular basis in addition to food you can purchase in dried form. A 40 ounce container of Iguana Juvenile pellets costs around $16. Bedding for all reptiles must be kept clean to avoid disease from overexposure to its own urine and feces. The cost can start at $2.50 and rise depending on where you purchase and what you prefer. Just keep in mind that not all bedding is safe for all animals. Replacement will depend on the size of the housing, the size of your reptile, and how many reptiles you own. If you have a reptile that climbs, you may need a fresh air habitat with a mesh screen and water resistant bottom. The small ones can cost around $30 for one that stands 20 inches tall or $80 for one that stands 30 inches tall. Lighting costs about $18 for a 10 inch clamp-on lamp that dims. A combination lamp can cost $48. An infrared heater can cost $23. There's also the cost of the electricity needed to run the environmental equipment. Other items you may need to price are huts for hiding, chemical additives for the water-dwellers, pumps, liners, netting, stands, bulbs, sterilizers, and algae scrapers. If it seems overwhelming, take your time to digest the information and make the best decision. It's not fair to the pet to provide less than adequate housing and other needs. Setting Up A Terrarium for Your Reptile A terrarium is similar to an aquarium except that it isn't full of water and fish. It's a tank made of glass or plastic with a wire mesh lid. The mesh allows air to come in and keeps the reptile from escaping. Reptiles are cold-blooded, unable to make their own body heat, which is why it is hard for them to move around if the temperature isn't right in their environment. Reptiles lay eggs to hatch their babies. Unlike human babies, which are dependent at birth, reptile babies are born ready to care for themselves. A successful terrarium is set up with the proper heat source for temperature perfection. A thermostat will ensure the correct temperature at all times. Reptiles need a basking lamp to sunbathe and a light tube for ultraviolet rays. It sounds expensive and complicated to a beginner, and it very well may be depending on what your idea of expensive is. But once your terrarium is set up, the biggest hurdle is being able to afford the proper food and bedding. The expense of bedding is reduced if you buy two pieces of indoor/outdoor carpeting to allow one to be cleaned while you use the other for your pet. There are several ways to set up your terrarium, depending on the needs of your reptile. The desert terrarium will need coverage over the inside bottom floor. Most people choose sand or gravel for the desert appeal. Plants will add a hiding place for your reptile and helps increase the natural look and feel of their environment. You must provide water even in a desert setting for three reasons---drinking, bathing, and moisture. Even in the desert a certain amount of water is necessary. It should be kept clean and accessible at all times for your pet's comfort and to ward off disease from unclean water. Sometimes a lizard or snake reptile will prefer a tropical forest terrarium setting. You'll have to make sure you regulate the day and night temperatures. Investing in some sort of timer will make this less of a chore and safer for your pet. The tropical forest is kept damp at all times. Provide a layer of wood chips and maybe some moss to hold the moisture. Keep some sort of trees to allow your reptiles to climb among the branches. Turtles and some snakes require a habitat that is part land and part water. You must purchase a heater designed to control the water temperature. Adding rocks allows the reptile access out of the water when needed. The rocks should be free of sharp edges to avoid injury to the reptile as it navigates through its home. Place a fluorescent light over the dry areas to allow sunbathing. The last habitat choice is called a savanna. You can consider it a medium ground between the dry desert setting and the very humid tropical setting. It's also cooler than either and stays only slightly damp. Shady areas should be included for the pet's comfort. Plastic plants discourage the reptile from eating the scenery. Coarse gravel is allowed in the savanna setting. A Lizard's Eye View of Life as a Reptile If you think of lizards at all, you think of those little reptiles that you see scurrying down a tree trunk or across your back door at dusk. There are many different types of lizards in the reptile family, and the group as a whole has some very interesting behaviors. The first unusual behavior, and the one most people know, is that they can separate from their tails when they are in danger of being caught. You may have experienced this as a child when trying to catch one of the small lizards or striped skinks, and ended up with only a tail in your hand. The Texas gecko actually uses his tail as a decoy when confronted by a predator, such as a snake. The gecko makes his tail point straight up, waves it slowly from side to side, and then sheds the tail. The tail itself continues to wriggle for several minutes, and is hopefully more interesting prey than the gecko itself. Lizard's tails are made so that a wall of cartilage passes through several vertebra in the tail, and the blood vessels and muscles are modified at these points to allow easy breakage without much damage to the lizard. It will grow a new tail, but never quite the same as the original tail. A number of lizards also avoid being eaten by changing color, in order to blend in with the background. It generally only takes several seconds for a lizard to expand the pigment in its skin to become more like his surrounding colors. This color change is made even more effective if the lizard remains motionless. Even without color change, a number of lizards can effectively play dead, or, as we normally call it, "play possum". A number of predators need the vibration or sounds of movement to detect the where the lizard is, and so becoming entirely rigid can be an effective way of disappearing from the menu of the predator. When a lizard is not being chased by a predator, it can do interesting and unusual things with its tongue. The tongues of reptiles can come in a number of different shapes, and lizard tongues are usually either long and narrow with a forked tip at the end, or short and broad. Both kinds of tongues are used to collect molecules from the air and bring them back to an organ in their mouth. This is a sense different than either smell or taste, but somewhat similar to each in some respects. Geckos use their long tongue to clean off their eyes, as many geckos do not have eyelids, and so wipe their eyes with their tongues. One Great Plains lizard regularly licks her eggs while waiting for them to hatch. In Australia, a skink with a bright blue tongue sticks out its tongue at predators, and lets it stay lolling out of its mouth. Naturalists are not sure of the reason for this behavior. Finally, chameleons use their long and sticky tongue to reel in their nightly diet of insects. These behaviors are only the tip of the iceberg for this fascinating group of reptiles. Make your own study of these beautiful and unusual creatures, whether capturing one in your backyard, or discovering those a world away at the library. What Types of Lizards Make Good Reptile Pets? There is nothing wrong with wanting a reptile for a pet, provided of course you first arm yourself with knowledge. Education is the key to being a responsible owner. Of course, there are instances when you may not first get the chance. Suppose your well-meaning relative decided it would be a good idea to give you an exotic pet for a gift, not thinking of the reptile's welfare should you be unable to care for it or uneducated about its care. But, of course there are always exceptions to the rule. There are ways of choosing your pet when you do decide to obtain a reptile. You can choose to buy a pet to fit the cage you are able to get, or you can buy a cage to fit the pet you want. Either way you go, please make sure you take into account that the reptile will grow and must be able to fit into the enclosure as it gets bigger. Please refrain from purchasing the reptile if you will be unsure about being able to afford a larger cage later on or if you won't have the space. There are plenty of other choices you can make that will fit into your budget. A Leopard Gecko is a popular lizard choice for people who want a reptile that will be smaller than the Iguana. The Iguana has been known to reach 7 feet in length! A bigger lizard means a bigger cage and a bigger food bill. The Leopard Gecko only reaches 10 inches. There's obviously quite a difference there. First time owners have more success when they start small and build up to the other interests. This lizard also stays active at night, so night owls may get more enjoyment from it than someone who wants to interact or watch their reptile during the day. The Leopard Gecko can live up to 15 years and is easy for a beginner to care for. A Bearded Dragon is a popular lizard choice. They're fond of crickets, but they also need fresh vegetables and fruits like the Iguana. The Bearded Dragon looks fierce and beautiful when it fans out its spiky beard. These reptiles can grow to 20 inches. Blue skinks are known for their blue tongues. Skinks can grow anywhere from 12 to 20 inches, depending on which type you get. They enjoy a diet of earthworms. This may be easier to stomach than the diet of mice and rats a snake requires! Another common lizard choice is that of the Green Anole, also known as the American chameleon. While it isn't actually related to the chameleon, it is able to change colors from green to dark brown. This reptile only grows to 9 inches normally and eats insects. Whatever your choice of lizard or other reptile as a pet, just make sure you do your research before you purchase. If you are given the animal as a gift, please educate yourself as quickly as possible to prevent unintentional harm to the reptile. Snakes As Reptile Pets Most common snakes kept as pets in the reptile category are the corn snakes and the Royal Python. Pythons do have teeth and will bite even though they kill their food by constriction. A python can possibly live to be 40 years old when conditions are right and has been known to be the longest snake on record, reaching well over 30 feet in length! While this is the exception to the rule, it should still be a consideration when choosing a snake for a reptile pet. You must know the proper requirements for your snakes before you commit to keeping more than one in the same enclosure. All snakes are not the same! Feeding them together is discouraged as well. Some snakes eat other snakes, too, so be careful about your choices. There are people who live in the country who will keep the king snake alive simply because it is known to kill other harmful snakes. There are different types of corn snakes and different types of pythons. Know your type before you purchase. Some make better choices than others for pets. Don't touch your snake if it's in the water bowl and has developed milky eyes. This could be a sign of shedding. Because the snake has limited vision, it could strike out at you in defense, not knowing you won't intend to harm it. There are things that could make your snake reluctant to eat. Force feeding is not a good idea. Illness, stress, shedding, temperature, humidity, and occasional fasting may make your snake's appetite change. The anaconda is not the longest snake ever known, but it is the heaviest. Although anacondas have been kept in captivity, it is not advisable. For one thing, it isn't fair to the snake. Their natural environment is a river. Some people have gone so far as to keep venomous or dangerous reptiles for pets, including rattlesnakes. This is highly discouraged, especially in homes containing children or the elderly. Wildlife shows make the adventures with reptiles seem fun and exciting. But most people should note that these people who interact with the snakes and other reptiles are experienced, trained professionals. They didn't become enlightened overnight. Scaled reptiles are classified as Squamata, which includes lizards and snakes. Detachable jaws are one of the fascinating talents of the snakes. The other qualification to inclusion as a Squamata is the scaly skin or shields. Snakes are thought to have evolved from lizards---but most people are far more scared of snakes than they are of lizards! It's ironic that the snake evolved from the lizard, yet lizards are one of the small animals the snake is known to eat. Some snakes can climb trees to steal eggs from the bird nests. They've even been known to devour the unfortunate bird left guarding the eggs. Because the snake swallows its food whole, digestion is more complicated and tiresome for the reptile. This will cause the snake to regurgitate if disturbed during digestion so it can escape danger. Yes, snakes can be interesting pets and interesting reptiles. Just make sure you know what you're dealing with before you attempt to make contact! Where to Buy a Reptile to Keep as a Pet Reptiles can be intimidating. They can also be great pets. The key is in the education of the owner. Many reptiles are purchased for pets for the wrong reasons. Sometimes a reptile is bought out of spite towards another family member. Sometimes a reptile is purchased as merely a show-piece to impress others. Maybe owning an exotic pet makes the person feel more important somehow, more interesting, more dangerous. But many people just don't know what they're getting into because they don't research properly beforehand. First, you must know the laws in your state for owning an exotic pet. In Australia, for example, you need a license to keep a native reptile in captivity. You'll need to know if you're allowed to obtain a reptile from even your own backyard. This is also considered the wild, as it is a natural environment. A reptile keeper or a pet shop may be the only places to legally obtain a reptile to keep as a pet. It's really better for the reptile as well to purchase one that is born in captivity than to remove one from its natural environment and thrust it into captivity. You can, of course, take your chances and get a pet from an advertisement in a newspaper. Many times this is a great way to get a good deal on the cage and accessories as well as starter food for the pet. Some people sell their pets in garage sales. Sometimes people set up an area in a parking lot to display their pet. Remember you are taking your chances on the health of the pet, on any diseases the pet may be able to spread to you as well. Hopefully, you will already have a good idea of what the pet and all it comes with would cost should you purchase it all new so that you won't get ripped off. Big well-known flea markets have been known to carry reptiles and accessories. Regulars keep booths on a regular basis, so that returning to ask questions may not be a problem. Be sure to ask if the seller is a regular at the flea market or how you may contact him/her if not. You could order your reptile from a magazine ad or perhaps from an online source. Many times a popular mall will have a pet shop as well, or there could be one nearby. To learn about the reptile and its needs, check out books at the local library. Check for others in your area who may already own a reptile of your interest so that you can get pointers and advice from someone experienced. There may be groups in your area for exotic pet owners. You'll need to know who these people take their reptile to for injuries or illness, too. Be aware that just because a pet shop has a certain pet for sale, does not mean the owner or salesclerk is an expert in the care and special needs of that particular animal. Do your own research beforehand, no matter where you choose to purchase your reptile!
A Day in the Life of a Fascinating Reptile, the Alligator Let's travel to Florida to meet one of the largest of reptiles, the alligator. Alligators live only in the southeastern states of our country, like Louisiana and Florida. Most of the time alligators are pictured in swamps, but many people in Florida have reported seeing alligators in the lakes near their backyards. Having a reptile the size of a lizard in the backyard is normal, but seeing an alligator in a pond is something to get excited about. For such a big reptile, you might be surprised to find that it often isn't easy to spot an alligator in the water. Alligators like to float just beneath the surface of the water, with only their eyes and nostrils breaking the surface of the water. The rest of their big body just relaxes underneath the water, legs spread apart and the huge tail hanging partway down. The alligator can float at exactly the right level by using his lungs as a kind of inflatable raft, and keeps just the right amount of air for only his eyes to stay above the water. An alligator stays mostly under water for one of two reasons. The first reason is to keep his body temperature cool. Like other reptiles, the alligator's body temperature depends upon the temperature of the air or water around him. The sun can get very hot in Florida, and since the alligator does not sweat, there has to be another way for him to keep cool. He first opens his enormous mouth, and that will cool him down a little bit. If the alligator is still too hot, he will go into the water to lower his body temperature even more. The second reason that an alligator stays in the water is to hide himself and wait for lunch to come by. Alligators can catch an amazing variety of animals to eat, including birds, fish, turtles, and even deer. They are quite at home in the water, swim very quickly, and can dive underwater and stay submerged for an hour, or even more. An alligator usually catches birds sitting on the water, but can raise itself up with a few powerful strokes of its tail to snatch one flying near the surface of the water, or just taking off. Female alligators use their formidable mouths for another reason, to protect her babies. Baby alligators can already catch their own food and swim, but they stay near their mother for a year or more in order to be safe from predators. Even before they are born, the mother alligator stays by the nest she dug in the dirt to keep others (like turtles) from eating her eggs. When the eggs are ready to hatch, the babies inside the eggs start making noises. Some babies come out of the eggs by themselves, but other eggs are taken into the mother alligator's mouth, where she gently rolls them around until the baby alligator can come out of the hard shell. This brief introduction to one of the most ancient and interesting of reptiles can be used as a starting place to assemble your own collection of alligator facts. Make sure to watch the next wildlife show about these big reptiles, and considering visiting one the next time you take a trip to Florida. Choosing A Vet for Your Reptile Carefully research your options for proper veterinary care before you decide to purchase a reptile. Although the animal may be sold at a low-cost, the care it would take once you own it may be more than you bargain for! A vet must be experienced in reptile care and medicine to make a good provider for your reptile pet. Reptile care and medicine requires special education. Although your sweet, jokester of an uncle may have thought it a hoot to give little Johnny that darling baby reptile for his first pet, the joke may be on you. There is a list of vets you can access over the internet for the Unites States of America, International, and Canada. Check with your local vets to determine their areas of expertise, experience, and limitations. You must make sure your vet will be comfortable handling your reptile. If the vet is uncomfortable, the animal will sense it and may become more of a problem. Once you get your animal, take it to the vet for a check-up even if it appears healthy. You may not be able to detect the problems a trained professional can find. Problems are not always readily seen by the eye. Maybe your reptile has parasites that you can't see just by looking at it. Your vet should be willing to help you find the proper care for your reptile if he or she is not properly qualified. You will want to know this information before your pet becomes seriously ill or injured. Even if your vet isn't qualified, he/she may be able to provide temporary care until you can get your pet to the right person for the proper care. It is a good idea to purchase a reptile that is already well-known as pet material. A pet that is new to the market will not be researched well enough yet. Not many vet colleges offer the specialized medicine courses necessary for caring for ill reptiles. Test your vet with questions about temperature or food to see if they even have basic knowledge. If you try to treat the animal yourself with over-the-counter medications, you could be making your pet more ill. The medication sold in pet stores often has ingredients like tetracycline that isn't good for your reptile; or the shelf medicines just simply aren't strong enough to do any good and are a waste of your money. A pet store may sell certain items just to draw money, without properly researching the items themselves for their effectiveness. After all, the clerks aren't pharmacists. If your vet has had special schooling required for reptile care, has he/she updated their knowledge recently? Are they aware of the latest treatments or medications? Do they have an interest in reptiles, conferences, or belong to any reptile associations? If you're unable to contact your vet, or are unsatisfied with the information provided, you can try asking zoos, other reptile owners, or local pet adoption agencies for references to reptile vets. In any case, it will help for you to educate yourself in case of an emergency. At least you could provide basic care until you could reach a qualified professional. Searching for Small Reptiles Lizards are one of an interesting group of animals that you might not think about too much -- the reptiles. The biggest of the reptiles, the alligator, is hard to miss, but they live only in the southeastern United States. Smaller reptiles, like lizards and snakes, can be found in your neighborhood. If you want to go exploring to see these colorful and fascinating animals, here are some of the more common ones that you might find. Let's begin with lizards. Most common lizards are between four and twelve inches long, which is about the length of one or two of your hands. If they see you looking for them, they will probably scurry away quickly, so approach them quietly. Some lizards can go as fast as fifteen miles per hour, about as fast as you ride your bicycle, and very fast for a reptile! One really interesting thing about lizards is that if another animal grabs their tail, the tail breaks off, and later the lizard grows a new one! All lizards have smooth dry skin, so do not worry about them being slimy. One of the more common lizards all across the U.S. is the skink, which has a nice round body, short stubby legs, and is very shiny. Look for skinks during the warm part of the day in areas that no one goes near, like groups of rocks in a vacant lot. Many skinks have long stripes along their bodies, and a solid color pink or blue tail! Another wonderful group of reptiles is the snake family. When you see a snake, think about how it uses its muscles to move so differently than any other animal. Snakes can move very fast, so don't be surprised if it slithers off quickly as soon as it realizes you are there. Be very quiet! Two of the snakes that are found throughout nearly all of the United States are the garter snake and the hognosed snake. Garter snakes are very thin snakes, about the size of two or three pencils, and about as long as your arm. They have long stripes on their bodies, the stripes are yellow and dark green in the eastern US, red-orange in the western US. Look for them in grassy fields or in grasses near the edge of woods, especially in sunny spots where they can get warm. Hognose snakes have funny turned up noses that they can use for digging, and that is how they get their name. They are big brownish or greyish snakes with darker colored blotches on their bodies. They like open sandy areas, and areas with a lot of fallen leaves on it. Hognose snakes have unusual behaviors when they feel threatened. If you get too close to a hognose, it may try to scare you by hissing at you and puffing out its head. If it feels really scared, it can flop over and play dead. Go exploring to see what reptiles you can find in your area. Look on the Internet or in a book to see a few pictures of snakes and lizards in your area, so that you will know what to look for. Enjoy! Reptile Diseases Dangers exist when keeping reptiles as pets, but not just as bites and scratches. You can also contract salmonella disease from not washing your hands after coming into contact with the feces or urine or touching something that has. It's important to keep your hands away from your face, food, or food preparation areas or utensils until you've properly washed and disinfected your hands. Salmonella can be transferred to your countertops from the reptile's feet, so allowing the little bugger to walk on in your kitchen, on your dining table, or even near your toothbrush is inadvisable. Mild infection of salmonella includes diarrhea, fever, and stomach cramps. More severe infection happens if the germs travel to the bloodstream, bone marrow, or nervous system. Other diseases that can be passed to you from reptiles are toxoplasmosis, Lyme disease, rabies, or chronic fatigue syndrome. These diseases are known as zoonotic diseases, those which can be passed from animal to animal or animal to human. It is important to understand that reptiles are not the only animals that transmit these diseases, so there's no need to panic just because you weren't aware of them before you bought the reptile. Lyme disease is passed by tick bites, and you can get ticks from walking through tall grass! Proper handling of your reptile is the most important issue to keep diseases from being passed to you or your loved ones. So, make sure you educate your children on the importance of proper handling and hand washing. If you aren't sure they are old enough to understand, it is best if you keep the reptile away from the child's reach at all times. The temptation of touching the reptile or putting their hands in the cage just might be too much for them to resist. Besides the risk of diseases being transferred to humans, the reptiles themselves can suffer from several diseases. Mites, ticks, worms, rickets, osteoporosis, fungal diseases, bacterial diseases, anemia, depression, or anorexia are just a few. There's also a disease known to attack lizards called metabolic bone disease. It's very painful for the reptile and is often caused by lack of calcium. Improper ultraviolet radiation also causes the reptile problems because of the inability to release vitamin D3, which enables proper absorption of calcium. The symptoms of this disease are brittle bones, swollen jaws, swollen legs, recessed jaws, and no energy. Just imagine how horrible it must feel! Other problems reptiles can encounter are mouth rot, skin disease from improper shedding, organ bleeding from an overdose of vitamins, colds, and respiratory infections. Central nervous systems can suffer with vitamin B1 deficiency. A female reptile can acquire overloaded ovaries or post ovulatory eggs, which could require surgery. This is why you must take your animal's welfare seriously. If you are well-armed with knowledge on how to care for it, the chances of it contracting or becoming worse from disease is much reduced. Of course, you have much less control over something the reptile may have had prior to your care. This is where it will help to have some background on the history of the pet shop where you decide to purchase. It also helps to know what to look for to spot some problems before you purchase! Raising a Reptile as a Pet You may have admired the unusual looking lizards at your local wildlife center, or perhaps a neighbor may have an iguana in their back room. If you have not raised a reptile before, let me suggest that you start with a leopard gecko. The leopard gecko has two very big advantages, and one of them is that it does not get very big. The other major advantage of a leopard gecko is that is has been kept and bred in captivity since the 1920s, and is among the healthiest lizards and easiest to keep. A juvenile gecko is quite active, but as they mature they become rather quiet and tame, and can be held and will take food from your fingers. The adult gecko does not get larger than nine or ten inches, and can be handled by older children. Even younger children can hold them, but make sure they are supervised to handle the gecko gently and to avoid picking them up by the tail, or holding the tail tightly. As with other lizards in the reptile family, their tails can break off. Actually, this might be an interesting occurrence for children, as the tail will be regrown, though it never looks exactly the same as the original tail Leopard geckos are easily kept in an aquarium or other plastic cage, as long as each gecko has at least ten inches square of floor space. The cage should be a minimum of twelve inches high. Have a shallow bowl for water that doesn't spill as the lizards crawl into or over it. The food bowl for the gecko can be something about the size and shape of the lid for a gallon jar, a larger flat area. You will be using crickets or other insects as food, and it is better if the food remains in the food bowl. The bottom of the cage should have some kind of paper toweling so that it can be changed in order to keep the cage clean. One really important point about raising reptiles is to keep the area sufficiently warm. Geckos thrive best when the daytime temperature is in the eighties, up to eighty-eight degrees. Nighttime temperatures can get to the middle sixties without causing any health problems. If your house is normally cooler than that, a lamp with a forty-watt bulb over the top of the cage should create enough heat to keep the gecko warm. There are also hot rocks that you can buy and put in the cage. Keep the cage out of direct sunlight (because it will get too warm) and have a screen cover for the top if you have small children or cats in your household. Once you have the environment, go to a reputable pet store and select your geckos. Leopard geckos come in a variety of colors, and you can keep several in the same cage as long as there is only one male in the group (most geckos that are sold are female). They eat mealworms and crickets, and correct care and feeding should be discussed at length with the seller. A well taken care of gecko can live as long as twenty years. Raising a reptile can be a fascinating hobby whether you are eight or fifty-eighty years old. Leopard geckos are among the easiest to raise, are easily tamed, and are always beautiful and interesting pets. Consider a gecko for your next pet. The Responsible Reptile Owner Many people think reptiles are cheap pets, easily accessible and easy to care for. However, after purchasing or being given a reptile several things can happen. 1. The reptile becomes ill and/or dies because of improper care. 2. The person becomes bored with their pet and leaves it unattended or lets it go in an unsatisfactory environment. 3. The cost of the reptile becomes overwhelming. 4. The responsible owner enjoys the companionship of the pet for life. A reptile in captivity depends on its owner completely. While it may have defenses, it is still basically defenseless. Unable to care for itself, it is at the mercy of the caregiver and every element of its care is important. To neglect responsibility as an owner can mean torture for the reptile. If you think it shouldn't matter because a reptile is incapable of emotion, maybe you should refrain from acquiring any pet. Whether or not it does or does not show or experience emotion is irrelevant. There is still the element of pain and suffering to be considered should it be neglected. Any living being deserves to obtain adequate care, especially one held in captivity. A reptile that has been provided for may not know how to adequately care for itself once it is put back into the wild. Maybe the reptile is released in an environment that lacks the right food sources or temperature. Protection from predators may be inadequate. If you give your pet away or sell it, please make sure the person receiving the reptile has proper knowledge of what it takes to care for and shelter the animal. If you decide to own a reptile for a pet and don't practice the proper handling, you could be attacked. Who would be to blame? You. Reptiles can be interesting as pets. The experience can be rewarding and educational. The responsibility lies in the hands of the owner. If you want a fulfilling and long lasting experience as a reptile owner, take the time and make the effort to learn about what's involved before you purchase or accept a reptile. If you choose a pet shop, choose a reputable pet shop. Don't count on their expertise. Some pets unfortunately are sold merely as profit pieces. It's often a wonder they even made it to the pet shop in one piece and alive. Exotic pet sales have gone through the roof, so many of these wonderful creatures are handled wrong right from the start. It pays to research how a healthy reptile should look before you make the commitment to purchase. Just having a license to sell a reptile does not make the management responsible people with consciences. A responsible pet owner is not just someone who loves animals. It's someone who makes the effort to care for the animals properly. There are many well-meaning people who call themselves animal lovers and still don't have what it takes to be the right caregiver for reptiles. You may be the perfect match for a dog and far from the perfect match for a turtle or a lizard! Know your limits before you commit. Gigantic Reptiles! Of all the reptiles, we are usually most interested in the largest ones -- alligators, crocodiles, komodo dragons, and the big snakes. These snakes have songs written about them, and the anaconda was even the star of a movie! Not only are these reptiles amazing due to their size, they also have many other interesting points. Let's begin with the standard question, exactly how big are they? The largest of the big snakes is the anaconda, which has been reported to grow to thirty-seven feet long. You can't realize how long a reptile this is until you measure from your room down the hallway, probably well into the living room. A truly enormous snake, and one of the longest reptiles ever! This snake spends most of its time in the water hiding in the water plants of South America. The other four giant snakes are pythons, and are found in Africa and Asia. They grow to between 22 feet and 32 feet, depending on the species. If you see a python in a zoo or other animal show, it is probably a reticulated python from Southeast Asia, due to its beautiful color pattern and the fact that it does well living in captivity. How do regular snakes compare with these giants? Most other snakes are much smaller, and even few rarely even grow to twelve feet. The giant snakes can live up to twenty years in captivity. When they are young they can be eaten by hawks or other predators that eat smaller snakes, but no animal would try to threaten or eat a full grown giant snake. The only real enemies of these great reptiles are intestinal parasites, diseases, and man. The giant snakes really can swallow a man whole! Very few cases of that have been reported though. Once a giant snake has had a large supper, it would be the same as if it ate four hundred average sized meals. This means that sometimes these reptiles might go a long time between meals, maybe as infrequently as once a year. The giant snakes have extremely strong muscles, and use them both in movement and in hunting their prey. Their jaws are also very strong, but that isn't as important as how wide their mouths open in order to eat their prey. Generally the giant snakes kill their prey before the snake begins to swallow them. The giant snakes rely on squeezing their prey (which is why they are often called constrictors), but they generally squeeze only hard enough to prevent the prey from breathing sufficiently, and eventually suffocate the prey. They do not need or intend to squeeze hard enough to crush or break bones, as people sometimes think. A constrictor throws several coils around the body of its prey, very neatly, and at each breath simply applies a little more pressure until the prey can no longer breathe. There are stories of skulls of goats being broken, but this is not necessary and not even the way that the constrictors work. One interesting behavior is that sometimes the giant snakes will break bones in order to "fold" a victim in two in order to swallow it more easily. Many snake handlers consider the giant snakes to be quite intelligent, and find that the giant snakes are easily handled and come to recognize and accept their trainers. They are among the most fascinating of reptiles, and make sure you visit them if they are in a nearby zoo or other naturalist area. Dangerous Reptiles When people decide to buy reptiles for pets, some inevitably cross the line of safety and wisdom. Although it may seem thrilling to own a pet that is harmful, it's best left up to the experts and people who are trained to preserve wildlife. Underestimating a dangerous reptile can mean a quick and certain death to the uneducated and careless pet owner. But if you're determined to own a dangerous reptile, at least make sure you are aware of all the possible safety precautions. Be fully informed as to what steps to take should you incur injury from contact with your pet. A pet may harm an owner for several reasons. A reptile has instincts that are inbred. If you make the mistake of smelling like food, you will be in danger of being mistaken for food. There's also the danger of underfeeding your reptile and having them strike out in desperation from starvation. If you startle the reptile, you're likely to be harmed. If the reptile is injured or ill, the pain may cause them to strike out. Although it is easy to want to blame the reptile, you must take into account the reasons it may have chosen to bite, scratch, or otherwise harm someone. Neglect to keep the cage, terrarium, or other enclosure secure at all times is crucial to your safety and to the safety of the reptile. Some snakes have teeth, some have venomous fangs, and some have constriction to use as weapons. Whatever the case may be, you can be certain it will be painful to the recipient. Vipers and rattlesnakes are two dangerous snakes that use their poisonous fangs to inject venom into their prey or attacker. Vipers can grow as long as 6 feet and don't need daylight to attack. The pits between their eyes and nostrils alert them to their prey. A beautifully dangerous reptile, the golden eyelash viper is a bright lemon yellow color. Snakes aren't the only dangerous reptiles, nor are they the only dangerous reptiles chosen for pets. Crocodiles and caymans are also big predators. They latch onto their prey with their many teeth and powerful jaws, and then they drag the larger victims underwater to drown them. Crocodiles have been known to gobble snakes for treats! American alligators can be seen in many museums or zoos, live in exhibits. Well known in the deep south of Louisiana, they are not only predators but also are hunted for food and to be cut up into trinkets sold to tourists. The alligator disguises itself as a log in swamp water and is camouflaged very well. They live in swamps and bayous from Texas to North Carolina. Florida has an abundance of inland water that provides a perfect habitat for these reptiles. Their diet of fish, birds, and small animals along with their size and vicious capabilities make them unwelcome to most as pet material. Their habitat is hard to create as well. You can tell the difference in crocodiles and alligators by the shape of their snouts and the way the teeth lay when the jaws are shut. The alligator is able to conceal its teeth inside its mouth while the crocodile is not. Rattlers -- The Dangerous Reptiles! Snakes are probably the reptiles that fascinate and repel us the most. One of the most visited booths at any outdoor show is the reptile area, with the little kids standing around and squealing at one special area -- the area where the rattlesnakes are kept. Milking rattlesnakes has been a popular sideshow item for many years at local fairs and county shows. There are about thirty different species of rattlers, and all of them live in America. Let's look at these wonderful reptiles and get to know them a little better. The two largest, on average, are the eastern and western diamondbacks. The average length of an adult eastern diamondback is around four feet, and the average length of a western diamondback is about three and a half feet. There are reports of diamondbacks that were more than ten feet, but facing a live rattler may add a few feet to the story. The largest ones that have actually been measured have been just under eight feet long. A six-foot rattler can weigh as much as 11 pounds. Generally reptiles are not thought of as beautiful animals, but a rattler has many wonderful designs to look at. The eastern diamondback, with a general pattern of grey brown diamonds all along its body, has a raccoon-like black mask over its eyes. The Santa Catalina rattlesnake (found only on Santa Catalina Island) has markings similar to heavy eyebrows above its eyes. Another fascinating feature of a rattler is the pits seen on either side of the face. These are not related to the venom glands, but are organs that detect radiant heat. The snakes use these to detect things that are close by and are warmer than the general surroundings. In this way, the pits can help locate of small animals such as mice. Since these reptiles have poor eyesight, they use the pits and their sense of smell to determine where their next lunch is coming from. The most noticeable feature of the rattlesnake is the rattle itself, and rattles are not found on any other reptiles. The rattles are made of the same material that forms horns, claws, and our fingernails. The "fingernail" at the tip of the tail forms a rattle, and when the snake sheds its skin, this part does not come entirely off, forming a new rattle. A few snakes have been found that have as many as twenty-three rattles on their tail. Reptiles, and snakes in particular, have very unusual ways to get around. A rattler can use the muscles in its body to push against small irregularities, or bumps, in the surface of the ground. As the snake goes by, each part of the snake pushes against the bump so that it looks like the standard snake "wiggle". The bumps may not seem very visible to us, and it might just be a slightly thicker than usual clump of grass in a grassy field. But what happens if a western diamondback is caught on a flat rock with nothing to push against? In this case, it uses the scales on its belly, and uses them in the same way a multi-legged caterpillar uses its feet. This motion is much slower, but is also quieter, and is used by rattlers to silently get their prey within striking distance. This is a short introduction into one of the most absorbing of the reptiles, the rattlers. Visit a rattlesnake exhibit at your local zoo or county fair, and look closely at them and watch their movements. You will be delighted. Vacation With a Reptile! Are you fascinated with shows on TV that show wrestling, wrestling between man and alligator? Do snakes repel you, but you still dream about them at night? Do you sometimes feel like a turtle coming out of its shell? If so, you might want to head to the southern part of America and visit the alligators, and all of their reptile relatives. The states of Florida and Louisiana have a spectrum of places to visit reptiles -- from the traditional alligator farms that have been around for the last fifty years, to modern wildlife refuges with tour guides that have doctorates in ecology. If you start in Louisiana, here is a sampling of places where you can see reptiles at their largest, best, and most active. You can start with a boat tour given by Alligator Annie Miller Tours, who has been giving tours of the area by boat since 1979. You can stay near Annie's at an alligator bed and breakfast in Gibson, La at Betty Provost's Wildlife Gardens. Each cabin has an attached deck overlooking the water, and a number of reptiles swim up on the chance that you might throw out some small pieces of alligator chow. These reptiles include small alligators, spiny soft-shell turtles, and red-eared sliders. The bed and breakfast also has a mile of nature trails that truly have the sound and feel of a real Louisiana swamp. Near Slidell, La. (close to Baton Rouge) is Dr. Wagner's Honey Island Swamp Tour, and is run by the wetlands ecologist. He gives tours through a beautiful cypress swamp, and presents so much fascinating information about the alligators, other reptiles, and waterfowl that live in the area. If you visit Florida, make sure to stop and see the alligators. Two of the biggest and best alligator attractions in the state are Gatorland, and St. Augustine Alligator Farm. The Farm is really a zoo that was started in the city of St. Augustine in 1893. While there you will hear some amazing sounds, like the bellow of a large male alligator. It sounds somewhat like an airplane engine, with a lot of vibration that you can actually feel in the air. Bellowing helps the animals locate each other, and brings males and females together during courtship behavior. The farm is also the only park to have all twenty-three species of the crocodile family, some having come from Asia. One of their showcase reptiles was a crocodile brought from New Guinea who grew to nearly eighteen feet long, and weighed seventeen hundred pounds when he died. As you go near Orlando you cannot miss the signs for Gatorland. This is also a Florida institution, and has been open for fifty-six years. Gatorland has boardwalks crossing over the area where you can watch alligators in their natural habitat. Nearby is the area where you watch large gators propel themselves out of the water at feeding time to retrieve pieces of chicken. Here you will also see alligator wrestling, which is something that was supposedly started by the Seminole Indians. After selecting and wrestling his opponent, the gator handler asks the visitors which is the most dangerous part of the alligator. It is a split decision between the tail and the teeth, but remember which part of the alligator the wrestler is holding shut! Take a vacation with the animals and see reptiles like you never have before. See them in their power, in their distinctive beauty, and take time to experience their native habitats, the ancient feel of the southeastern swamps. Reptile History Many people overlook that dinosaurs were reptiles, as are tortoises and turtles. Frogs are often lumped into the same category while they are, in fact, amphibians. Reptiles evolved from amphibians because of their necessity to learn to adjust to life on land. This brought about the need for legs and lungs to breathe air. Yet snakes are legless, able to crawl along with their magnificent bodies. The scaly reptile skin was necessary to protect the bodies from the rough surface of the ground, much different from the smooth water the amphibians were used to. Science has described over 7,000 species of reptiles, even going so far as to claim birds as a part of the reptile group because of the inherited characteristics such as their skeletons, internal organs, and DNA. There is a distinction besides feathers, though. Birds are endotherms, meaning they must have food for energy to keep warm. Other reptiles are ecotherms which need an outside heat source to help them retain proper body temperature. Crocodiles are in the second oldest group of reptiles, perhaps resembling the dinosaur relatives more than any other reptile group. Although, the turtle is the winner of the oldest proven reptile group, even older than the dinosaurs! There are two groups of turtles, one group fares best on land and the other in water. The one that fares best on land is the terrestrial tortoise. Success in keeping a reptile for a pet depends much on your climate. You can forget sticking your pet snake, turtle, or lizard outside in a cage or pen or aquarium if you live in a cold climate. Keeping the pet in a controlled temperature is essential to its survival. Digestion depends on the right temperature and so does the animal's ability to move around successfully. It may seem cute to see that little turtle basking in the sun on a log in a pond. But the reptile needs the heat to stay alive. Too much heat is also as bad as too little. Maybe the turtle's ability to live for so many centuries when other animals perished is because of its outstanding life span. A turtle can live to 100 years old if the conditions are right! Old temples have been discovered in Africa with snakes carved into the walls, giving pythons a sacred quality over the many years of its existence. But the boas have been known to live over forty years at a time in zoos! Anacondas have been feared in South America for a long time. Any snake that can grow to over 35 feet deserves a wide berth! An interesting reptile that's been around a long time is a native of Madagascar. The chameleon exists in 120 different known types. Oustalet's chameleon is about the size of a small cat. It would give a domestic feline a definite scare to walk upon one of those! On the other end of the size spectrum, the Dwarf Brookesia, also a native of Madagascar, is small enough to stand on the tip of a finger.
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