Introduction to Reptiles: a Beginner’s Guide

What is a reptile?

A reptile is a vertebrate animal, they have a bony skeleton just like you and me, breathe through lungs, are covered in scales, are ectothermic, and typically lay eggs.

Cold-blooded

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Reptiles are ectothermic (exothermic) meaning, “outside temperature.” This means the animal’s internal temperature changes with that of the environment. If it is 73 degrees outside, the inside of the snake is 73 degrees. Mammals are homothermic, meaning same temperature all the time. Humans are typically 98.6 degrees Fahrenheit all of the time.

Reptile bodies cannot function when it is too cold or too hot. They rely on their surroundings to maintain their body’s preferred temperature. A cold lizard will bask on a rock in the sun, then move to the shade after he becomes too hot.

Types of reptiles

There are over 8,000 kinds of reptiles split into four groups.

1. Chelonia – turtles, tortoisesrussian_tortoise

2. Crocodilia – alligators, caimans, crocodiles, gavialsgatorsmilecutouthead

3. Rhynchocephalia – tuatara

Tuatara
4. Squamata – amphisbaenians, lizards, snakessunshine_profile-300x200

Scientists do not separate lizards and snakes into two groups, but list them under the group “squamata.” Snakes are considered specialized versions of lizards. Why must the scientists be confusing?

Compare and Contrast: Snakes Vs Lizards

All snakes are legless, but some lizards are legless too!

All snakes have no ears, but some lizards lack ears as well.

All snakes have no eyelids, but some lizards also have no eyelids.

Snakes have forked tongues, but so do many lizards.

Confused yet? Don’t worry, from now on we will discuss snakes and lizards as separate groups. Whew! (and you were worried)

Chelonians – Turtles

shellinsideThere are over 300 different kinds of turtles. Sea turtles fly gracefully through the warm oceans of the world with giant flippers, tortoises lumber across the land with strong elephant like legs, and terrapins paddle with webbed feet in freshwater habitats.

A turtle’s ribs and backbone together form the turtle’s hard shell. It is covered in skin just like your bones are, a turtle’s shell is inside its body.

Sea turtles can hold their breath for over an hour by using the powers of their amazing heart. The heart blocks off blood to the lungs and allows the blood to travel to only parts of the body needing oxygen while under water!

The giant galapagos tortoise, aldabra tortoise, and african spurred tortoise can live to be over 170 years old!

Crocodilia – Crocodiles and family

With beautiful smiles and big strong tails, crocodilians number over 20 different species including crocodiles, alligators, caimans, and gharials. Gharials have very long, narrow snouts studded with sharp teeth.

crocCrocodiles and alligators are a bit more difficult to tell apart. Alligators typically have broader snouts and straight rows of ridges down their backs. Crocodiles have narrower snouts and irregular rows of ridges on their back. When a crocodile’s mouth is closed, its fourth tooth on the lower jaw fits into a notch on the outside of the upper jaw.

There are only two different kinds of alligators; the american alligator and the very endangered chinese alligator.

Crocodilians are very shy creatures feeding on insects, snails, shellfish, frogs, turtles, fish, mammals, and birds. They rarely want to be near any human. We taste terrible!

gatorbackThe eyes and nostrils are located on top of their head to allow the animal to see and breathe above the water’s surface. They are covered in bony armor to protect them from both their prey and predators. It’s almost like having two skeletons!

We still have much to learn from crocodiles. We have found they are immune to some diseases, heal quickly, are intelligent, and are wonderful parents. Alligators even help other animals survive during droughts by digging water holes with their huge body. Sadly, most crocodilian species are in danger of becoming extinct!

Squamates – Lizards

smallestlizard

Lizards are the most diverse group of reptiles. They come in a huge variety of colors, shapes, and sizes. Lizards are split into two clades or groups, the Iguania and Scleroglossa (meaning hard tongue.) Some lizards can grow over 10 feet long like the komodo dragon and Salvadores monitor lizard. Others, like the Jaragua lizard are able to curl up on a dime.

A typical lizard has external ears, four legs, claws, eyes with eyelids, and tails. Scientists have found that lizards can see color, and some can even see in the ultraviolet wavelengths. Excellent eyesight allows the creatures to snatch bugs out of the air and to see spectacular mating displays.

frilleddragon08 A lizards sense of smell and taste is very acute. Monitor lizards even have a forked tongue like a snake to enhance smelling ability.

Lizards have found remarkable ways to survive. Many are covered in spines, some can stick to trees, most are able to lose their tails, others change colors, a few glide out of trees, and one species can even run across water!

What scientists have learned from lizards has been astounding. They are an amazing group of animals.

Squamates – Snakes

No other animal has been both revered and reviled more than the snake. They are the most widely feared and misunderstood animal on the planet. Very few kinds of snakes are able to harm people.

These slender reptiles have no legs, ears, or eyelids. Snakes are dry, not slimy as scales are made of keratin, the same thing your hair and fingernails are made of.

hognosetongue

A snake’s forked tongue cannot sting or hurt you. A snake that is constantly flicking out it’s tongue is simply interested in its surroundings “sniffing’ like a dog. Chemicals or “scents” stick to the tongue as it waves it around. Then the scent laden tongue is stuck into the neuron studded Jacobson’s organ, a small hole in the roof of the mouth, sending instant messages about what it smells to its brain.

costarint

Remarkable organs known as heat sensing pits light up the night for some lucky snakes. Rattlesnakes, vipers, copperheads, boas, and pythons are able to distinguish in vivid detail differences in temperature allowing them to navigate and catch prey in complete darkness.

All snakes are carnivores. To catch prey, a snake must either bite it with fangs and inject venom, or use its body to subdue the animal using strong muscles. Swallowing the food is a challenge for an animal with no arms or legs! Their jaws are not strong enough to chew their food. Tiny curved teeth hook on to the food item, and allow it to only go in one direction, down the throat!

A snake’s head may appear too small to swallow many food items. Jaws of these animals have a hinge allowing them to open wide. The lower jaw includes two jaw bones connected in the middle with a streatchy ligament, so the mouth can open wide sideways as well. One side of the jaw holds the prey while the other side of the jaw slides forward, walking the food further into their mouth.

The largest snakes in the world are the anaconda and reticulated python, both able to grow over 30 feet long and weighing several hundred pounds. Jewels of this blue planet, snakes come in every color of the rainbow rivaling tropical fish and birds in their beauty.

Rhynchocephalia – Tuatara

Tuatara

A living fossil, the tuatara is an unusual reptile unchanged since the days of the dinosaurs. Although they look much like lizards, tuatara have different skulls, teeth, and pelvic bones. Living only in New Zealand in protected islands, these reptiles prefer lower temperatures than other reptiles. Tuataras live for a long time, probably over 100 years!

Unfortunately, they are highly endangered due to humans, habitat destruction, and introduced predators.

The Unheralded Hissers

“AHHHHHHHHH!  Gross, or EEEEEEK,” are probably the most common responses to our guest today.  Meet the roach.  Labeled as one of the most undesirable animals to be found in the kitchen, this insect sure has one bad rap.  Pest control companies have convinced everyone that roaches can make you sick.  While, I would not be thrilled to have an infestation in my kitchen, this is simply not true. “Although cockroaches carry disease organisms, they are not known to transmit it to humans.” Clay Kirby of the University of Maine.

hmroach

I have even had a few keepers refuse to even touch the creepy crawlies.  Of course, the little guys with their cute little antennas eventually would wriggle into their hearts.  (Figuratively! Sheesh, you people are gross.)

There are over 4,000 species of roaches scientifically discovered.  There are probably just as many left undiscovered on the planet.  Less than one percent of all these species are known to dwell in human domiciles, the rest want nothing to do with us. http://blattodea-culture-group.org/content/cockroaches-amazing-diversity

Roaches are important decomposers in the ecosystem.  They are able to eat tougher things than worms and many other decomposers, turning dead plants into rich, dark soil.  Without the roaches, plants would have a tough time getting the nutrients they need from the soil.

Our own Malagasy Hissing Roaches are one of the most fun group of animals to watch.  They are more like little goats than bugs.  The males would constantly play king of the cardboard mountain, pushing rivals back with the shiny black “horns” on their exoskeleton.  Each night, a new battle would begin.  Hordes of roaches would crawl out from their hiding places in a fury of hissing and head-butting in attempt to dethrone the king. One tenacious little bugger would perpetually guard the food dish.  Only the tiny fingernail sized nymph could sneak under his radar unnoticed for a bite to eat. We ended up scattering their veggies all over the cage after that.hissingcockroach

One night working late I heard a strange scuffling noise coming from the roach enclosure.  Looking in I noticed a large male wriggle his body around in a sort of dance.  For a minute I thought he had watched too many episodes of Seinfeld with Elaine dancing at a party.  Then I noticed a few females watching him with interest a few inches away.  Either he was making a huge fool of himself, or these guys get on the dance floor to woo a cute girl.

After the wooing, these roaches make wonderful mothers.  Hissing roaches lay a perfect stack of long oval, bright yellow eggs like a line of jewel cases for cds sitting all in a row.  She then sucks the eggs back into her abdomen for safe keeping.  Some roaches even care for their soft little nymphs until they molt a few times and their shells harden.  Good girl!

Find out more about the shy bug that cannot bite, hisses like a snake for defense, and tastes delicious!  (Don’t take my word for it, ask the lemurs.)

Confused Tortoise

Matt is an African spurred tortoise (Geochelone sulcata).  He visits us for summer camp and enjoys mowing the lawn, eating delicious veggis from the garden, and visiting with the neighbor’s dog through the fence.

Matt must have had too many conversations with the chocolate lab next door.  Could this be defined as an identity crises?

Sulcatas grow quickly, eat constantly, and leave copious amounts of poo in their wake.  An adult Sulcata can easily weight over 100 pounds!  The largest African Spurred tortoise on record lived at the Giza Zoological Gardens weighing in at 232 pounds!

These tortoises are very difficult to care for.  They require constant warm dry temperatures, a very secure enclosure, eat a large variety of food, and are constantly getting into trouble destroying their surroundings.  We fondly call them little reptilian tanks.

I love watching Matt explore the wonderful outdoors and being the silly clown that he is.

Basic Reptile Pet Advice

Like any pet, caring for a reptile or amphibian requires time, money, and love. In addition to the requirements of a dog or cat, reptiles have special needs.

Reptiles and amphibians spend most of their time sleeping, they do not like to be touched or petted, and will not catch a frisbee. We receive calls daily about reptile pets that are no longer wanted by their owners. While reptiles are kept in a domestic setting they are still wild animals.

artiguana

Green Iguana

Consider rescuing a reptile before purchasing one. Shelters and rescue agencies regularly receive unwanted reptile pets, and often have all their animals checked by a veterinarian before putting them up for adoption.

A great resource for reptile information online is: kingsnake.com

Join your local Herpetology Organization to meet others interested in reptiles. Many hold fun meetings and exciting field trips.

Virginia Herpetological Society

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We had a great experience with Reptiles Alive for my daughter’s 6th birthday party. Rachel arrived exactly on time, set up quickly, and immediately engaged the group of curious children. We had an impromptu dance party while waiting for last minute guests and Rachel was very accommodating. The children LOVED the show!! And my soon-to-be 11 year old wants them to come for his birthday! I highly recommend Reptiles Alive for your next event!read more

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We just had Reptiles Alive come to our preschool and the kids loved it!! We had 4 shows over 2 days to accommodate all our children and everything went great! Caroline was very easy to work with and quick to respond to all my emails. She was our presenter too and was early each day and ready to go when the kids arrived. She really geared her show towards our audience (2-5yr olds) and had them laughing and answering her questions and touching the animals. It was perfect… we would definitely book them again!!read more

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We booked Reptiles Alive for our son’s 7th birthday party. Miss Rachel put on an amazing show for the 20 kids we had over. The highlight was when my son and I had the chance to hold a long and surprisingly heavy boa constrictor named Sunflower. The show was both educational and fun for the kids, and it kept them captivated for a full hour – priceless!!read more

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01:53 06 Feb 18

Rachel is an awesome instructor and very good with many kids. The reptiles were fascinating. This was a great birthday party for my daughter and her second grade class.read more

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Robert McKeon

23:26 26 Feb 18

We invited Reptiles Alive for our birthday party. Ms. Rachel did a wonderful job to educate the kids about the fun facts of Reptiles and also kept them entertained and focused. It’s not a easy job facing a bunch of 7-year-old boys and 3-year-old preschoolers. We highly recommend Reptiles Alive show. It’s fun and full of knowledge!read more

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We had Reptiles Alive join us for a country club event and they did an outstanding job! Ashley was amazing and so professional. She was very interactive with the children and played the role perfectly. We couldn’t have asked for a better experience!read more

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20:20 28 Mar 18

We’ve been working with Reptiles Alive for the past 4 years now and they show up and show out every time. Everything from booking to the day of is efficient and friendly. At our past event, presenter Liz did 6 shows back to back for our campers, which is truly impressive and phenomenal. We will continue to work with Reptiles Alive for years to come and really appreciate the work and educating that they do!read more

Lydia Vanderbilt

Lydia Vanderbilt

21:09 05 Apr 18

Reptiles Alive gave an awesome show at our elementary school! The presenter was so much fun and really engaged the children. Very cool reptiles and a great interactive meet and greet at the end. The kids loved it!read more

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Jonathan Grau

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I am in charge of grade level assemblies at our school and our 3rd grade has RA in for their Rain Forest show every year to reinforce the things they have learned about in class. This is my second year working with them and I have been absolutely thrilled with the interaction to book the event and with the presenters. They engage the kids and help make them a part of the show. I can’t say enough about this wonderful program and the amazing people that work there.read more

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Kim Painter

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We love this show at our preschool!! The kids have so much fun and learn a lot! They are very organized and always start on time. We have always had a wonderful experience with Reptiles Alive and can’t wait to have them back again!read more

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Melissa Jones

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