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August 19, 2011

11:02
A.M.

Talking reptiles: The Smithsonian's National Zoo gets a new look

Total Responses: 21

About the hosts

About the host

Host: James Murphy

James Murphy

James Murphy is a Smithsonian research assistant in the Department of Herpetology at the National Zoological Park. Since 2009 he has served as the Curator of Herpetology at the Smithsonian National Zoological Park.
Host: Matthew Evans

Matthew Evans

Matthew Evans is a supervisory biologist at the National Zoo’s Reptile Discovery Center.

About the topic

Join Matthew Evans and James Murphy from the Smithsonian National Zoo's Reptile Discovery Center Friday, Aug. 19 at 11 a.m. ET, as they chat about the changes coming to the reptile house, various types of reptile species, and answer any of your animal- and reptile-related questions.

Have a question? Ask now.
Q.

Hi, I'm Jim Muphy, the curator of the Smithsonian's National Zoo's Reptile Discovery Center. I welcome the opportunity to talk about my favorite group of animals-- amphibians and reptiles. I have been fascinated with them since I saw my first turtle at age seven. Matt and I hope that this chat will help you to gain an appreciation of their beauty and diversity.

Q.

Matthew Evans :

Hello, I'm Matt Evans- biologist at the reptile discovery center at Smithsonian's National Zoo.  I'm looking forward to answering your questions about reptiles and amphibians this morning!

Q.

Making people care about reptile conservation

Once you capture a zoo visitor's attention by showing them a beautiful or rare reptile or amphibian, how do you go to the next step of motivating them to do something meaningful to help reptile conservation? It seems like without the connection between appreciation for what they see in the zoo and what they can do to help the zoo animal's wild cousin, that the zoo's conservation mission may go largely unfilled.
A.
James Murphy :

The National Zoo and the Smithsonian Conservation Biology Institute have a number of scientific studies in place to address the threats to amphibians and reptiles. One of the ways that you can help is to support the Zoo's ongoing projects, such as the Panama Amphibian Rescue and Conservation Project, which Matt will talk more about in a minute.

– August 19, 2011 11:07 AM
Q.

Amphibians

We hear about declining amphibians, but there seem to be so many things affecting them. What is the most urgent conservation issue and how are zoos helping to address it?
A.
Matthew Evans :

One third of all amphibians are currently threatend with extiction.  One of the primary threats is emerging disease, specifically amphibian chytrid fungus. The Zoo currently has launched a multi-institutional effort, Panama Amphibian Rescue and Conservation Project, to save 20 currently criticall y endangered frogs.  Learn more at http://amphibianrescue.org.

– August 19, 2011 11:09 AM
Q.

Snake Phobia

I have a fear of snakes. What would you suggest is th best way to deal with and get over this phobia?

A.
James Murphy :

If you visit the Reptile Discovery Center, I encourage you to watch one of our animal demonstrations with some of our snake residents. For these demonstrations, we choose snakes that are non-venemous and even-tempered. They are no threat to our staff, volunteers, or visitors.

– August 19, 2011 11:11 AM
Q.

caiman lizard

Matthew Evans, in the pic in the washington post, you are holding a decently sized caiman lizard. I was wondering if there is any way to accurately determine the sex of these creatures, as there are many ideas, but no solid, ways to determine this. Best to you- Chris
A.
Matthew Evans :

You're right that there are many ways to do this. The animal in that photo is a male. We can determine the sex by blood work, radiograph and by the use of probing tools. Other indicators can be temperament and size. Males will be larger and more aggressive.

– August 19, 2011 11:12 AM
Q.

Bronx, N.Y.

How does a cobra escape from a zoo? Not that I am a cobra seeking inside information. I am just curious.

A.
James Murphy :

Snakes can be very effective escape artists, which is why we keep them in secure enclosures.

– August 19, 2011 11:14 AM
Q.

talking reptiles

I have seen people own monitor lizards, yet I have heard they are very aggressive and will attack and bite humans. What are the realities and myths? Thanks-Carlos in Miami

A.
Matthew Evans :

Any animals with teeth can bite. Monitor lizards are very curious and very active lizards. In my experience, I have not seen or know of them to be specifically aggressive toward humans. I work with komodo dragons and other various types of monitors and find and enjoy their curiousity and sometimes playful behaviors. I only see aggression during feeding events.

– August 19, 2011 11:16 AM
Q.

Biggest change

What is going to be the biggest change to the Reptile Discovery Center at the Zoo?
A.
James Murphy :

We're extremely excited to be planning an Appalachian salamander research lab, which will highlight the National Zoo's and the Smithsonian Conservation Biology Institute's efforts to study potential threats to the salamanders in our backyard.

– August 19, 2011 11:18 AM
Q.

Where do they come from?

In the olden days of zoos, most of the animals on exhibit were captured from the wild. Today, most of the larger animals, such as many mammals, come from other zoos, or similar institutions. Does the same go for reptiles and amphibians?
A.
Matthew Evans :

The Reptile Discovery Center participates in many Species Survival Plans, which means we collaborate with other zoos to breed critically endangered animals, including reptiles for the conservation of the species and to ensure genetic diversity. Our new spider tortoises from Madagascar are an example of this--they came to us from San Diego Zoo. We hope to bring in a female to breed with the males.

– August 19, 2011 11:20 AM
Q.

jobs

if we wanted to volunteer at the reptile house how can we go about it? And I have seen the show "Swamp Wars" and "Swamp Brothers." One owns a reptile farm called the Glades Herp Farm they have a few cuban crocs and a spitting cobra king.

A.
Matthew Evans :

We have a great team of volunteers and are always looking for more help. You can find more information and fill out an application online on the Zoo's website at http://nationalzoo.si.edu/Support/Volunteer/default.cfm?hpout=Volunteers&xtr=.

– August 19, 2011 11:22 AM
Q.

Cobras

Are you going to display more of the cobra family and the boa family's and where can we learn more abouth the snakes I love them
A.
James Murphy :

Since the Zoo's focus is on saving endangered and threatened species, we will probably not have many more cobras or boas, which are considered less vulnerable than other snakes. We currently exhibit Timor pythons, which are in considerable danger of extinction. The Timors we have now are too young to breed, but once they reach maturty we hope to have healthy, thriving offspring.

If you're interested in cobras and boas, check out Harry W. Greene's book called "Snakes: the Evolution of Mystery in Nature."

– August 19, 2011 11:24 AM
Q.

Tagu Lizard

Do you plan to display the tagu lizard? I love waching your snakes. Their reptile house is my second home away from home.

A.
Matthew Evans :

We love that you love the reptile house! Currently we are not planning on exhibiting tegu lizards. Our focus right now is geared toward animals that are in need of conservation and we're using our holding space for animals that are critically endangered. The IUCN considers tegus of least concern at the moment.

– August 19, 2011 11:25 AM
Q.

Reptile house

What's something that the average zoo-goer might not know about the reptile house?
A.
Matthew Evans :

When you look at the exhibit, you don't realize that behind the exhibit, there's a whole different world. We're working with endangered species, working on breeding programs, taking care of incubators incubating eggs and keepers that are preparing live snails to feed to the lizards, etc. 

– August 19, 2011 11:32 AM
Q.

Favorite?

Which reptile is your favorite and why?
A.
James Murphy :

My favorite has to be the Komodo dragon. They're considered to be the most intelligent lizard and reach a length of approx. 10 feet! We did an experiment with our dragon, Kraken, and were surprised to discover that she interacted with objects-- she even stuck her snout in a shoe and carried it around her enclosure! In my personal experience, no reptile had ever exhibited such behavior. The komodo dragon is the only reptile who really pays attention to the folks who visit it and makes eye contact with them.

Matt's favorite is the Indian gharial. It's uniquely adapted to living in its environment and is rare in Zoo collections. The National Zoo is fortunate enough to have one female on exhibit.

– August 19, 2011 11:33 AM
Q.

Animal demonstrations

How often does the Discovery Center do animal demonstrations? Is there any set schedule?
A.
Matthew Evans :

The two daily demos are a 3 pm "meet a reptile" opportunity, that can feature corn snakes, milk snakes, geckos and frogs. At 4 pm we do an aldabara tortoise training session, which is a rare opportunity to see keepers working with a 500-lb tortoise. It's a chance to see keepers really enjoying interacting with reptiles!

– August 19, 2011 11:35 AM
Q.

crocodiles

How much meat do the crocodiles eat every day?
A.
Matthew Evans :

Crocodiles do not actually eat every day! There are some crocodiles that we might feed once every two weeks. We're starting to do more training with our crocodiles so we're starting to feed smaller food items more frequently to increase our ability to train our crocodiles. As an example, we are feeding our Cuban crocodiles five medium-sized rats twice a week. We're rewarding them for successful training, which we do so that we can manage the animals safely and successfully.

– August 19, 2011 11:41 AM
Q.

gharial

What is the funny bump on the end of a gharial's snout?
A.
Matthew Evans :

That "bump" is what we call a secondary sexual characteristic. Only males have what is called a ghara, or that bump. Females do not have it and so this helps us determine the sex of the animal. There's a little debate about the function of the ghara, but researchers believe it is used to make a vibrating or buzzing sound to attract females or repel other males.

– August 19, 2011 11:48 AM
Q.

Mating

Is reptile and snake breeding as intense as it is with pandas? Will we be having "pregnancy watches" like we do for the panda bears?
A.
James Murphy :

The Association of Zoos and Aquariums manages something called a Species Survival Plan, which determines which animals we pair up in order to maintain a genertically diverse population. Once we have this recommendation, we put the male and female together. It's up to him to court her. If she's not interested-- which sometimes happens-- we may try another male. If breeding is successful, we then provide a nesting site for egg-layers or heat lamps for gestating females who give birth to live young.

Some female reptiles can exhibit parthenogenesis-- they can reproduce without a male. These young would then be clones of their mother.

All crocodilians, some turtles and some lizards do not have sex chromosomes. Their offsprings' sex is determined by the egg incubation temperature.

– August 19, 2011 11:52 AM
Q.

Komodo Dragon

What do you think he might be thinking when he makes eye contact with visitors to the zoo? I found your comment interesting and have never really noticed that before!
A.
James Murphy :

We'll never know exactly what Kraken was thinking-- that remeains a mystery! If you're interested in learning more about her behaviors, check out the results of our study in "Komodo Dragons: Biology and Conservation" by Smithsonian Press.

 

– August 19, 2011 11:57 AM
Q.

Reptile Center

Is there a best approach for entering the Discovery Center? Should one visit the reptiles in a certain order?
A.
Matthew Evans :

There's only one entrance to the Discovery Reptile Center. You start with lizards and crocodiles and end with tortoises. I'd definitely be sure to check out our Cuban crocodile exhibits and our Panamanian frog exhibits highlighting our conservation program. We are excited to have 14 new species at the exhibit and the opportunity to talk to visitors about the importance of conserving them.

– August 19, 2011 11:58 AM
Q.

Thanks for participating in the live chats with Matt and me. We hope you've enjoyed this chat as much as we have, and we look forward to your visit to the Reptile Discovery Center!

Q.

Matthew Evans :

Thanks so much for your great questions! If you want to learn more, be sure to visit the Zoo's website at nationalzoo.si.edu. You can also follow us on Facebook at http://www.facebook.com/nationalzoo or on Twitter at http://twitter.com/#!/nationalzoo! And be sure to check out the story about the Reptile Discovery Center in the Washington Post Magazine this weekend!

Q.

 

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Host: