Sunday, February 6, 2011

Hooray for Herps!

Today The Dahlem Center hosted a reptile program with Paul McCormack.  Paul has worked with animals for many years, including a fifteen year stint at the Boston Zoo and running his own pet shop here in Michigan.  These days he takes a few of his favorite animals on the road, doing programs in classrooms, at nature centers, etc. 

Reptiles, for those who don't know, come in five flavors:  turtles, lizards, snakes, crocodilians, and tuataras.  The first four most of us know.  The last is a lizard-like animal with only one species in the genus.  Paul didn't have any of these on hand, but he did have multiple specimens of the other four kinds.

Today's program started with turtles.  First up was a Florida box turtle:

Box turtles are so called because they have the wonderful ability to pull their heads, legs and tails inside their shells, and then close up the ends of their shells.  When a shell is closed, the seal is so tight that you cannot slide a piece of paper through it.  This is a wonderful adaptation because these turtles are land-dwellers.  Unlike their aquatic turtle cousins, these fellows live life strictly on land, trundling their ways through fields and forests like tiny living tanks.  Other things in those same fields and forests may choose to snack on a wayward turtle, like, oh, foxes and raccoons.  These predators not only have jaws that bite, but also claws that catch.  The smart land turtle pulls its appendages inside to safety, sealing them up inside completely out of reach of hungry predators.
Take a look at those long, slender legs (below) - this is an animal designed to book across the land.  Michigan has box turtles, but they are few and far between.  In fact, they are on the state's endangered species list.  If you ever see one, consider yourself lucky.

The next turtle we saw was a soft-shelled turtle.  These aquatic beauties have very soft, flexible shells.  They are also very flat.  One of their many names is the pancake turtle.   They also have extremely webby feet.  Most of our aquatic turtles have webbing on their back feet, but this turtle also has webbing on its front feet.  This makes it a powerful swimmer - kind of the motor boat of the turtle world.

It also has a very long neck - great for snaking out to grab prey, or people.  Paul's soft-shelled turtle is a male, which is easily identified by its size.  Female soft-shelled turtles get quite large - like the size of an average pizza.  With their very long and flexible necks they can reach practically all the way around their sides and grab things that are sneaking up behind them.  A turtle to watch out for.

I love the long snout - it's rather pig-like.  These turtles, which are found in large lakes, will often float just below the water's surface with their noses poking up to take in the air.

Yep - very flat animal.  Even the tail is flat.  Flat feet, flat shell, flat tail.

From turtles we moved on to lizards.  This very handsome fellow is a leopard gecko, which is native to Afgahnastan.  A desert-dwelling animal, it blends in very with with its native habitat, and our rug.

We tend to think of geckos as having sticky pads on their feet, but few do.  As a desert-dweller, this animal has few things to climb up and cling onto, so it has no need for sticky feet.

Paul's second lizard is one of my favorites:  a blue-tongued skink.  Native to Australia, it is a medium-sized lizard with a rather flat body and short stumpy legs.

And a very blue tongue.  Like snakes, lizards taste the air with their tongues.  Anything new is worth a good sniff...or lick.

The purpose of the blue tongue is to frighten off attackers.  When scared, this lizard opens its mouth wide, sticks out its tongue, which it flattens to a thin, broad floppy thing, then charges forward, hissing and flapping.  Its enough to scare most predators away.

After the audience left, Paul let me crawl around on the floor with a couple of the animals to get some close-up shots.  To entice the skink to stick out its tongue, he put out a small buffet:  worms and cucumbers.  They were readily consumed.

And there we have it - the blue tongue, licking its chops!

Did I mention crocodilians?  Paul had a baby alligator on hand to share.  This little one is about nine months old.  Kind of cute, in a gatorish sort of way.  It also made little whiney noises, sounds that, if it was out in the wild, would bring its mother running to protect it.  No mum here, though - just Paul and the audience.

Even at this tender young age, this animal is well-equipped with many razor sharp teeth.  And already it is beginning to exhibit adult behaviors - opening its mouth wide and hissing when Paul reaches into its container to pack it up for programming.  

Finally we got to the snakes.  I simply love snakes - they are fascinating creatures on so many levels.  Here we have a California king snake.  These snakes will eat almost anything, including other snakes.  And that also includes rattlesnakes.  King snakes are constrictors.  They wrap around their prey and squeeze.  Each time the captured prey exhales, the snake tightens its coils.  Eventually, the prey can no longer expand its lungs and it suffocates.  A rattlesnake in such a situation is likely to strike at (bite) its adversary, but the king snake is prepared - it is immune to rattlesnake venom!

We don't have these beautiful snakes here, but we do have a cousin, the milk snake, which is equally beautiful, with more reddish marking than brown.

Most naturalists will tell you that northern water snakes are animals best left alone.  They are not venomous, but they are aggressive (or, as Paul says, pushy), and they will bite with little provocation.  Never-the-less, Paul had not one, but two water snakes on hand today.

These dark snakes are terrific swimmers.  They live in and nearby lakes, ponds, rivers and streams, where they actively hunt frogs, fish, salamanders, etc.  Their dark coloration helps them blend in.

Michigan is also home to the very uncommon copper-bellied water snake.  Paul rescued this particular animal this week from a woman's basement, and its brightly colored belly suggested to him that this might not be just your average water snake.  Biologists don't think the northern water snake and the copper-bellied hybridize, but the jury is still out on this as a "for sure" determination.  Paul's going to send some photos to the experts to see if they can tell "for sure" which species this is.

The last snake of the day was this lovely boa.  Boas are South American snakes, so, unless someone's pet has gotten loose, you won't find one of these slithering around the wilds of Michigan.

These snakes feel a lot heavier than they actually are.  That could be because they are all so muscular, or maybe because they are so long.  I don't know.  But the kids sure did like him!

If you are a reptile fancier, you might want to keep your eyes peeled for our next reptile program.  We have them at least once a year, and its always worth a trip to see some of these wonderful animals up close and in person.  Where else will you have the opportunity to walk away saying you petted an alligator?


  1. It's just SO great to see kids (GIRLS even!) holding the snakes and smiling, instead of going EEEEEK!!! Also great to see box and leather-back turtles, which I haven't seen since leaving Michigan for New York.

  2. I love the box turtles. They are such a calm welcome sight in my garden. The kids' faces in your photos are wonderful.