Archive for Reptiles
Now THAT’S a Power Lunch!
When we say “power lunch,” we’re not talking about business executives making big decisions while noshing on a meal. No, we’re talking about actual power – like when a 200-pound alligator lunges forward, clamps its massive jaws onto a jumbo-sized rat off a stick, then swallows it whole.
Feeding the zoo’s alligators is not for the faint of heart. Zoo keepers deliver the gators’ food with long tongs, staying as far away from the reptiles as possible. The zoo’s two American alligators, Ron and Penelope, are cooperative at feeding time, but they’re far from cuddly.
Aside from rats, the alligators also eat specially-formulated biscuits and gelatin – yes, gelatin – twice a week. According to area manager Shelley Scherer, “They’re still hungry after eating the rats and biscuits. The gelatin keeps them full without adding unnecessary calories.”
Alligators were once endangered in the United States. But strong laws and careful management brought this species back from the brink of extinction. The population of alligators is now stable.
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Teeny-Tiny Turtle Baby
Our newest zoo baby may be small, but tiny creatures are a big deal for the zoo keepers at the Fort Wayne Children’s Zoo. Say “hello” to our brand new black-breasted leaf turtle in the Indonesian Rain Forest!
This teensy terrapin is almost three weeks old and weighs just over six grams (about the same weight as a quarter). Black-breasted leaf turtles are an endangered species managed by the Association of Zoos & Aquariums, which makes this a very important birth. Zoo keepers are caring for the hatchling behind-the-scenes and monitoring its progress carefully.
Dave Messmann, who works with turtles and other zoo reptiles, related the cautious enthusiasm surrounding the baby animal, “We waited for two weeks before inviting anyone to take pictures. We wanted to be sure that the hatchling was thriving before introducing it. We’re excited about hatching an endangered species and we’re monitoring this one very closely.”
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Why are black-breasted leaf turtles endangered? It all comes down to habitat destruction and over-collection. Black-breasted leaf turtles are native to Southeast Asian countries including Vietnam and Southern China. They are used in Traditional Asian Medicine, and are often sold as pets. These turtles’ unique facial expression and small size make them particularly attractive within the pet trade. However, Messmann contends that this endangered species might not be as easy to rear as people assume. “Turtles require a lot of care and proper nutrition throughout their lives. At the zoo we give them a specific diet and document their care. If people don’t feed and nurture them properly their shells can become deformed.” The diet to which Messmann refers consists of fruit, vegetables, worms and crickets.
Black-breasted leaf turtles live up to 20 years but only reach an average length of five inches, making them one of the smallest turtles in the world.
Zoo babies are sponsored by Lutheran Children’s Hospital.
Posted in: Baby Animals, Indonesian Rain Forest, Reptiles, Zoo News
The Baby Boom Continues
The zoo’s baby boom continues as zoo keepers welcome a new addition to the Indonesian Rain Forest…a teeny, tiny, two-inch crocodile skink. It’s the first time this reptile species has ever been hatched at the Fort Wayne Children’s Zoo! This imperious addition to the animal kingdom weighed-in at two grams, approximately the weight of a pencil eraser.
Although its name implies a lizard of force and stature, this particular crocodile skink began its life cycle in a fragile state.
Late last year, zoo keepers discovered by accident that the adult crocodile skinks had produced an egg. Dave Messmann, a zoo keeper in the Indonesian Rain Forest, accidentally disturbed the egg while cleaning the skinks’ aquarium. “We were concerned about the disturbance. It’s a best-practice to avoid moving a reptile egg once it’s discovered, ” Messmann stated. He also explained the reason why zoo keepers would have preferred avoidance, “An air pocket inside the egg can shift if the egg is moved, potentially causing the embryo to suffocate.”
Hoping for the best, zoo keepers decided to incubate the egg and observe. They constructed an incubator by filling a deli tub with wet moss and poking holes in the tub’s lid. The egg was carefully placed atop the moss and the tub was placed on a shelf. The egg was then allowed to incubate at room temperature, undisturbed. After sixty days, a live hatchling was observed!
At eleven days old, the crocodile skink baby weighed-in at 2 grams. Now thirty days old, the baby is doing fine and continues to develop normally. It will likely reach an adult length of eight inches and top-out at one pound.
Zoo babies are sponsored by Lutheran Children’s Hospital.
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How Many Keepers Does it take to Hold a Python?
When Bo the reticulated python got his annual physical last week, it took seven people just to hold onto this unusual patient in the Indonesian Rain Forest.
At 15’ 3” long, Bo is 61 pounds of pure muscle and squirmed mightily to express his displeasure at this visit from the vet.
Zoo staffers get their hands on this powerful snake only once a year, so despite Bo’s protests, zoo veterinarians Dr. Joe Smith and Dr. Kami Fox wanted to examine every inch of him (one hundred eighty-three inches, to be exact!)
Lead snake keeper Dave Messmann held Bo’s head while other keepers and veterinary staff lined up to stretch out the snake. Keepers inspected Bo’s skin, looking for irregularities in his scales or lumps under the skin.
Messmann gently held Bo’s mouth open with a rubber spatula so Dr. Fox could examine the snake’s teeth. A string was run down Bo’s spine to determine his exact length, and Dr. Fox drew blood from Bo’s tail for testing.
“Bo is a healthy snake,” said Dr. Smith after the exam. As if he was trying to prove his excellent physical condition, Bo downed a tasty rat immediately after being returned to his exhibit.
New Year, New Babies!
Zoo keepers got a big surprise last month when a tentacled snake in the Indonesian Rain Forest gave birth to seven babies overnight!
Zoo keepers knew that the female snake was pregnant, but weren’t sure when the babies would arrive. An ultrasound done in December revealed a tangle of little snakes inside the mother.
Dr. Kami Fox, the zoo’s veterinary intern states that the length of gestation and anticipated due date for tentacled snakes is difficult to determine. “We try to assess how far along they are via ultrasound but rarely do we witness the actual birth. In this particular case, the snake gave birth during the night and in the morning we observed the new babies.”
Tentacled snakes are ovoviviparous, which means they produce eggs inside their body, but instead of laying eggs they give birth to live young. Here’s how it works: The unborn snakes are nourished via egg yolk (the mother has no placenta), and the eggs hatch prior to birth. The mother snake then delivers live young.
Tentacled snakes are ambush hunters. According to Zoo Keeper Dave Messmann, “They use their tails to anchor themselves and wait for their prey.” At this point, the unique tentacles for which the species is named allow the snake to sense vibration from the unsuspecting prey – usually a small fish. Once the predator becomes aware of its prey it strikes with its mouth. The strike is lightning-fast, lasting only a matter of milliseconds.
Baby tentacled snakes begin hunting just hours after birth. According to Dr. Fox, “The babies come out hungry so we provide size-appropriate fish for them.”
The only known predator to tentacled snakes is humans.
Norbert’s Favorite Things
Norbert the Aldabra giant tortoise celebrated his 51st birthday this week, reinforcing his status as the oldest animal in the zoo. But because giant tortoises can live for more than 100 years, Norbert is just middle-aged!
Zoo keeper Ryan Coomer says that Norbert is a friendly fellow. “He comes over to see us when we are cleaning,” Coomer says. Norbert’s exhibit-mate, Purdue, isn’t quite as outgoing. “She is a little bit shy.”
Norbert has a busy schedule because keepers interact with him to provide physical and mental stimulation. Here are some of Norbert’s favorite things:
Sprinkler Time: “Norbert likes to play in the twirly sprinkler,” Coomer says. Play? “Well, he sits and lets the water hit him.”
Hose-down: “When we spray Norbert’s shell with the hose, he’ll stand up tall and stretch out his neck,” Coomer says.
Neck Rub: Norbert’s scaly reptilian skin can get dry and flaky, so he gets rubbed with baby oil every month.
Mud Wallow: On a hot summer day, nothing beats hunkering down in a giant pool of mud. As reptiles, tortoises use their environment to regulate their body temperature. A good wallow does the trick.
Cactus on the Water: Norbert chases prickly pear cactus fruits that keepers place in his pond.
Melon Ball: In the wild, tortoises rear up and stand on their hind legs to reach tasty foliage. Keepers hang a melon on a rope just high enough to encourage this behavior. “Norbert can reach pretty high when he wants to,” Coomer says.
So which of these special things did Norbert get on his birthday? “Nothing special,” Coomer says. “When you’re 51, it’s just another day!”
Aldabra giant tortoises are listed as vulnerable to extinction in their native home in the Aldabra Atoll, which is part of the Seychelles Islands in the Indian Ocean. Learn more here.
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Posted in: Reptiles, Zoo News
The Python Weighs In
“We start by placing his wooden crate right next to his exhibit,” explains zoo keeper Dave Messmann. A small hole in the exhibit wall lines up perfectly with the hole in the crate, and Bo can’t resist the dark hiding spot. He slithers into the crate almost right away. “Snakes are naturally drawn to dark hiding places,” says Messmann.
With Bo safely in the crate, Messmann and zoo keeper Tim Jedele take the opportunity to completely clean and sanitize the snake’s exhibit. “Bo is a very active snake, and he knocks over the artificial plants all the time,” says Messmann.
Once the exhibit is cleaned, Messmann and Jedele weigh the snake – crate and all – on a portable scale. After subtracting the weight of the empty crate, Messmann calculates that Bo weighs at about 65 pounds – a gain of ten pounds since the snake was last weighed in April, after he arrived from the Children’s Zoo in Saginaw, Michigan.
It’s tough to measure the length of a large snake, but Messmann decides to give it a try when Bo is released back into the exhibit. After a little coaxing, Bo leaves his hiding place and enters the just-cleaned exhibit, conveniently sliding along the window where Messmann has placed a tape measure. “The tail tip is out!” Jedele calls, and Messmann checks the placement of Bo’s nose against the tape: Fifteen feet, six inches – a gain of about nine inches since Bo arrived.
Bo gets busy checking out (and messing up) most of the work that Jedele and Messmann did that morning in his exhibit. But it’s Bo’s busy lifestyle that has made him a real crowd-pleaser. “He likes to climb up the glass and look right at you,” Messmann says. “It kind of takes people by surprise.”
Messmann is pleased with Bo’s weight gain and growth. “He is an awesome snake,” Messmann says. “It’s great to see zoo guests enjoying and learning about him.”
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Posted in: Reptiles
Mr. Happy “Rocks”
A few weeks ago, our friends at Pokagon State Park called with a problem: a 26-year-old Blanding’s turtle named Mr. Happy wasn’t looking so happy. This turtle, named for the perpetual “smile” on his face, lives at Pokagon’s Nature Center and is a staff and visitor favorite.
Blanding’s turtles are endangered in Indiana, so Mr. Happy is an important ambassador for our state’s wildlife. In May, Mr. Happy stopped eating and became lethargic. Fred Wooley, Pokagon’s longtime naturalist, called on Zoo Veterinarian Joe Smith for help.
“When Mr. Happy arrived at the zoo, he didn’t look well at all,” said Smith, who quickly determined the cause of Mr. Happy’s dire state: Mr. Happy had swallowed a very large rock. The rock was lodged in the turtle’s stomach and completely blocked his digestive tract. He also had pneumonia, because bits of food had made their way into his lungs.
Using an endoscope (a flexible tube which can be inserted down the throat), a steady hand, and much patience, Smith was able to remove the pesky pebble. “It took two hours to get the rock out,” Smith said.
With his stomach now freed of the rock, Mr. Happy got right back to business. “He started eating almost immediately after we finished the procedure,” Smith said.
Mr. Happy is back at Pokagon’s Nature Center, basking in the admiration of his many fans. “People beam when I tell them the story of that turtle,” said Wooley. “I have to give Dr. Joe and his staff all the credit in the world.” And the rock? “We have it pinned above his aquarium,” Wooley said – presumably where the turtle can’t take a bite of it again.
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Big Snake Makes a Big Move
A new reticulated python named Bo has slithered onto the scene in the Indonesian Rain Forest.
When Bo made his public debut on opening day, he had zoo fans intrigued from the start. “He is very active and curious for a big snake,” says zoo keeper Tim Jedele. “All the zoo guests were amazed that he was moving around and looking at them through the glass.”
Bo started out his life as a pet in someone’s home, and the owner later donated Bo to the Children’s Zoo at Celebration Square in Saginaw, Michigan. When the Fort Wayne Children’s Zoo’s resident python, Jed, passed away over the winter and keepers began searching for a new snake, the search led them to Bo, who was rapidly outgrowing the facilities in Saginaw. “The staff at Saginaw took excellent care of Bo,” says Jedele. Bo’s Saginaw fans even created a special going-away card and sent it along on his trip to Fort Wayne.
After Bo’s routine 90-day quarantine period was completed, Jedele and zoo keeper Dave Messmann loaded Bo into a crate and delivered him to the python exhibit in Dr. Diversity’s Rain Forest Research Station. Bo, who is 15 feet long and weighs 55 pounds, immediately began exploring the trees, pond, and logs in the 20-foot-long display.
Bo already seems comfortable in his new home in the Indonesian Rain Forest. “Bo is a perfect fit for our exhibit,” says Jedele.
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How to Weigh a Komodo Dragon
To maintain excellent health as she ages, Gorgon, our 18-year-old Komodo dragon, gets regular monthly weigh-ins. Picking up and carrying the five-foot-long, 62-pound lizard to a scale is not an option – that could be stressful for Gorgon and dangerous for the zoo keepers.
Zoo keeper Dave Messmann, who has cared for Gorgon since she arrived at the zoo as a hatchling in 1995, created a six-foot-long box for transporting Gorgon to and from the scale. The box features a clear Lexan lid and multiple hatch doors for inspecting various parts of the lizard’s body.
Messmann simply parks the transport box next to a small door in Gorgon’s enclosure. “We bait the box with food – in this case we’re using mice – and Gorgon walks right in,” he explains. Once Gorgon is inside the box, the back hatch is closed and the entire box is carried to a set of load bars and weighed. Keepers have already weighed the empty box, so they’ll subtract the box’s weight from the total to get a weight on Gorgon. “Her weight has been pretty stable for the last several months,” says Messmann. “That’s a good sign.”
As an aging Komodo dragon, Gorgon is being treated for arthritis and other age-related ailments. Her transport box is made of plastic, so the veterinarian can obtain x-rays without removing Gorgon from the box. When it’s time to move Gorgon outside to her summer home, she comes and goes in this custom-made transport box.
Obtaining weights is a basic tool for monitoring animal health, especially with reptiles, who typically mask any symptoms of illness until it’s often too late for treatment. “We want to do everything we can to keep her healthy,” Messmann says.
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