Creature Feature: Cobra Caroline

Caroline Seitz

Director/Founder of Reptiles Alive LLC

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Reptiles Alive Name: Cobra Caroline (aka The Reptile Lady)

Hisstory: Cobra Caroline performed her first live reptile show in public when she was 9 years old.  She continued presenting wildlife education programs through high school and college and then worked a few years at various zoos and nature centers.  In 1996, she founded “The Reptile Lady” which would soon become “Reptiles Alive LLC.”

RA Diet: Favorite lunch time items for Cobra Caroline include banh mi sandwiches, BLT’s with homegrown tomatoes, and anything her mom cooks for  her.

Natural Diet: Cobra Caroline is an opportunistic omnivore.  She will eat both plants and animals, including seafood.  Her diet is variable depending on the seasons.  Winter  foods may include slow cooked soups and stews,  where as summer fare typically includes vegetables grown in her garden and fish and crabs from the Chesapeake Bay.

Range: Although Cobra Caroline was born in Arlington and has lived her whole life in northern Virginia, she spends much of her time traveling, especially to Reno, NV where her father lives.  She also has had special opportunities to spend time on the Big Island of Hawaii where her brother lives and works as a sea turtle biologist.

Habitat: You could find Cobra Caroline in many different habitats.  If you are on the road, look for driving the reptile van to a show.  You might see her performing a show at a school, library, festival, or other venue.  She manages the office, so she spends a lot of time on the phone and on the computer.  And she supervises the animal collection, so she spends time monitoring the health and care of the animals here.  WHEW – she is everywhere!

Size: Don’t be fooled by Cobra Caroline’s size.  At 5 feet tall, she is more than capable of handling a giant python, capturing a crocodile, or carrying a heavy tortoise.

Lifespan: Cobra Caroline could live to 80 years or more.

Reproduction: Cobra Caroline has successfully raised many plants and vegetables into a beautiful home garden.

Conservation: Since she was 4 years old, Cobra Caroline has dedicated her life to teaching other people how important snakes and other animals are to our environment. She spent her childhood learning about nature by reading books, writing in her nature journal, and spending copious amounts of time in the swamp near her house searching for snakes, frogs, insects and other creatures.  She started volunteering at nature centers and zoos as a teenager and became a Virginia Licensed Wildlife Rehabilitator when she was 18.  Wildlife conservation IS Caroline’s life.

Cool Facts: After graduating from George Mason University with a B.A. in Speech Communication, Cobra Caroline spent some years working a variety of fun jobs.  She worked as a park naturalist at Hidden Pond Nature Center;  a park ranger Mason Neck State Park where she lead canoe trips into bald eagle habitats and a wildlife educator at a zoo where she performed shows with monkeys, kinkajous, exotic birds, and other animals.  One of her strangest jobs was working for an animal removal company as a “Snake Removal Technician.”  This involved spending hours crawling through dirty and sometimes scary crawlspaces and attics searching for snakes and inspecting the facility to figure out how to stop them from getting in.

Cobra Caroline feels lucky every day – as the director of Reptiles Alive, she gets to “work” at job she loves.  She can’t imagine doing anything else.

The Hognose Heaven Zone

There is a mysterious area very near to that place which is known as Washington DC. It is an area as vast as about  1 or 2 square miles and as timeless as infinity (or at least a few million years.) It is the middle ground between light and shadow, between city an country.  Journey with us now into this wondrous land. It is an area which we call the: “Hognose Heaven Zone.”

Our story begins with a foursome of herpers, Caroline, Charise, John W and Jon K, hiking to an undisclosed location near Washington DC.   Years before this journey began, former Reptiles Alive Wildlife Educator and Keeper Jeff Stryker discovered  a population of hognose snakes and eastern milk snakes (two awesome snake species that are not very common in the suburbs) living in this strange spot and named the place “Hognose Heaven.”

As the group’s journey began, they spotted their first herps of the day. There were many turtles and frogs living in the wetlands along the trail.

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Nesting eastern painted turtle

Soon, the  group of herpers veered off the main trail onto a little-used trail that led to the heart of Hognose Heaven. They began turning over logs and rocks.  A four-toed salamander was discovered!  The salamander’s creamy white and black spotted belly helped with its identification.

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Four-toed Salamander

After arriving at Hognose Heaven, something very unexpected appeared to materialize out of the rocks, sticks, and leaves – something that even four experienced naturalists could hardly see until they were right on top of it!

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Newborn Fawn

The fawn was only a few hours old. Its camouflage was remarkable! The baby deer was nearly invisible – the perfect survival strategy for a small animal that can not yet walk or run. Its mother was nearby and would return as soon as the coast was clear. Even though the group was in a strange place, it is normal to find fawns alone in the woods without their mother. As soon as the people vanish, the mother deer will come back to care for her fawn.
After observing the baby deer, the group continued searching for snakes. Caroline quickly found the hognose snake’s favorite food item: toads.

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Toad

As Caroline approached John W to inform him of her find, she noticed he was holding something in his hands. Something about 3 feet long, with orange spots on a black body and a pointy, upturned nose. “Hognose! Hognose!” she yelled with joy!

John W and Caroline yelled for Jon K and Charise to come and see the spectacular serpent. When they arrived, however, the snake was acting strange.

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Does this Hog-nosed Snake Need Help?

As the group excitedly discussed the behavior of the hognose snake, the snake in question seemed to miraculously get better!

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It’s a Miracle! (or maybe just a Hognose)

After making his miracle recovery from his apparent death, the snake made his move and slithered back to the safety of his rocky home.

Now, the group needed to make a decision. Continue the search? Or have lunch? Caroline suggested having lunch after a short hike over to a nearby bizarro-world she called: CACTUS ISLAND!
Believe it or not, (believe it), the prickly pear cactus is native to the Washington DC area. Much of its habitat has been lost to urban development, but it can still sometimes be found in certain micro-habitats around our nation’s capital. That day, the cactus was in bloom!

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Prickly Pear Growing Near Washington, DC

Does the story end here? Did they find an eastern milk snake? Did they have a good lunch? Only they know the answer to those questions. Questions from the Hognose Heaven Zone.

Lesson Session – Weave a Food Web

Weave a Food Web

Subject – Science, Art

Grade Level – 4-6

Skills Used:

Predicting; Collecting, Recording and Interpreting Data; Identifying and Controlling Variables; Defining Operationally

Key Vocabulary:

Food Chain, Food Web

Lesson Time:

30 minutes

Conceptual Objective:

Students will understand that food chains overlap to form a web of multiple energy paths.

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Process Objective:

Students will create a model of a food web.

Materials

* construction paper
* markers
* scissors
* bulletin boards
* pushpins
* tape
* string
food web handout – click to download

Procedure

1. Introduce and explain the terms ‘food chain’ and ‘food web’ to students.

2. View, explain, and answer questions about an example food web.

3. Pass out handouts and explain how the information is set up on the chart.

4. Put children into groups of five, giving each group the necessary supplies.

5. Instruct children to draw and label all of the different woodland organisms listed. Also draw a picture of the sun. Cut out drawings and attach them to bulletin boards with pushpins. Leave space between the drawings.

6. Students should tape one end of the piece of string to any one of the drawings. Using the table, connect the other end of the string to the proper organism.

7. Students should draw and cut out an arrow, taping it on the string to indicate in which direction the energy is flowing.

8. Students should repeat these steps to connect all of the organisms.

9. Announce clean-up time, and display finished food webs around the room.

Lecture

What is the food chain?

Energy flows through an ecosystem as one animal eats another animal or plant. A food chain shows “who eats who” in an ecosystem.

For example:

An owl – eats a mouse who – eats a beetle who – eats leaves.

Each part of the food chain has a name:

Plants make (produce) their own food using water, sunlight and carbon dioxide (photosynthesis). Plant start the food chain. There are more plants than any other living thing because they are the bottom of the food chain. They provide the energy for everything else. They are the PRODUCERS.

The animals (insects, mice, chipmunks, squirrels, rabbits, deer) that mostly eat plants are called the herbivores. There are fewer herbivores than there are plants because each herbivore needs a lot of plant matter to live. Herbivores feed directly on the producers. They are the PRIMARY CONSUMERS.

Animals (spiders, birds, snakes) who eat the primary consumers (herbivores) are the SECONDARY CONSUMERS. There are fewer secondary consumers than there are primary consumers because each secondary consumers needs to eat a lot of primary consumers to live.

Animals (fox, coyotes, eagles, owls) who eat the 1st & 2nd consumers are carnivores (they eat meat). They are the TERTIARY CONSUMERS. There are fewer tertiary consumers than there are secondary consumers because each tertiary consumers needs to eat a lot of secondary consumers to live. Because there are fewer animals as you move up the food chain, it is really a food pyramid with the big carniores needing to eat the most and so being the rarest of the animal kingdom.

Because animals eat so many things, the food chain has many overlapping parts, so is really a FOOD WEB.

Last but not least, the DECOMPOSERS eat and so recycle dead animals and plants (mushrooms, fungi, insects, bacteria). They are then consumed themselves by other parts of the food web so nothing is wasted.

Something to think about:

In a food web, if an important animal is taken out, and there are no other animals to take its place, it can affect all the other animals in the food web. This animal is called a KEYSTONE SPECIES.

An example of this is the American alligator. Thirty years ago it was hunted so much in the everglades that it all but disappeared. What people didn’t realize was that the American alligator’s main food is the gar, a big everglade fish. The gar in turn eats a lot of the same fish people like (referred to as game fish).

When the American alligator disappeared, the gar (with no other predator) became very plentiful. All the extra gar ate all the game fish. Suddenly fisherman noticed that all the game fish had disappeared and there were gar everywhere.

The food web was out of balance. Once the American alligator was protected from hunting, its numbers rose quickly. In turn the number of gar decreased. Soon the game fish returned. The balance was restored.

Evaluation

1. Did students make and use a model that allowed them to make inferences about food chains? Assess the neatness and the accuracy of the food webs.

Troubleshooting

1. Students may argue about who will do what in the group. If this happens, the teacher should assign roles to students.

First Wildlife Rescue of 2009!

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On Wednesday, January 7, Joanne Fugito found a nearly frozen five-lined skink lizard in her driveway. Lucky for the lizard, Joanne knew just what to do since she is a vet tech at Great Falls Animal Hospital – a veterinary clinic that works with Reptiles Alive and other wildlife rehabilitators to save injured wildlife.

After rescuing the skink from the freezing cold driveway, she did some research and set up a temporary enclosure for it inside of her house. She then called Reptiles Alive and brought the lizard right over. It is the first wildlife rescue we have received in 2009.

The skink appeared healthy, but it could not be released into the bitter January cold. So I set up a warm home with plenty of hiding places for it to live until spring, when we will release it back to its home in Joanne’s front yard.

The heavy rains the day before probably washed the skink out of its hibernation burrow. If the temperature had been 55 or above, I would told Joanne to release the lizard, but the cold air paralyzed the reptile and would have killed the lizard very quickly. After being kept indoors for more than 24 hours, the skink would probably not be able to re-acclimate to going back outside in the winter, so we will wait until April to release it.