Enrichment helps animals demonstrate their natural behavior, adds variety to their day, encourages them to explore their environment, and enhances their well-being. Because reptiles encompass a large and varied group, keepers at the Reptile Discovery Center provide enrichment specific to the natural history of each species.
Hunting and feeding
Reptiles can be carnivores, insectivores, herbivores, frugivores, or omnivores. Some feed on the ground, some in trees, and still others in the water.
Keepers release live crickets in the enclosures of bearded dragons and other ground-dwelling reptiles. The reptiles chase their prey as it leaps about in every direction.
Keepers toss the large carnivorous reptiles, such as the Zoo's Komodo dragon and Chinese alligators, already-dead mice, rats, chicks, and rabbits. They cast prey, of a size appropriate for each species, throughout the animals' enclosures to get them hunting. Since their arrival in 2004, the Chinese alligators have worked their way up to whole tilapia. Consuming large prey can be a demanding task—it takes the Komodo dragon three hours to polish off an entire rabbit. As part of an experiment, the dragon was presented with an entire calf leg in February. Keepers provided many reptiles with a feast of periodical cicadas that emerged in summer 2004.
Arboreal and desert reptiles in the wild have their own particular strategies for obtaining water. In arid habitats, reptiles hydrate themselves by drinking dew, while tree-dwelling species sip rainwater as it cascades off of leaves. Reptiles also get water from their food, pools collected in bromeliads, and other sources. Keepers have fashioned special dispensers that continuously release water in small drops, allowing Zoo reptiles to quench their thirst as they would in their natural habitats.
Reptiles are ectothermic, which means they regulate their body temperature by absorbing heat from external sources. For example, in its native habitat, the Grand Cayman iguana basks on sun-warmed rocks during the day, cooling off in the shade and spending the night in dark crevices. At the Zoo, heat lamps of varying strengths and places to cool down provide a range of temperatures in which the reptiles can bask and thermoregulate.
One of the ways arboreal lizards assert their dominance is by perching above other individuals. (Dewlap size and a display of pushups are two other ways.) In Reptile Discovery Center enclosures, branches and rock piles encourage this natural behavior.
When you see a reptile's tongue flicking in and out, it means it's following a scent. Cobras, for instance, are extremely scent-oriented. Keepers have left scent trails around their enclosures to encourage investigation. Sometimes they place another snake's shed skin in the enclosures to elicit olfactory activity. They also remove a snake from a group and reintroduce it later to stimulate a response.
Keepers train the Komodo dragon and Cuban crocodiles to touch their snouts to a colored target on the end of a stick in exchange for a food reward. Training large and potentially dangerous animals facilitates safer handling and minimizes animal stress during vet checks and transport.