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By Valerie May
Ladies and gentlemen!
Come one! Come all!
Step inside this herpetological heaven and prepare to be amazed by the newest awesome additions to our cold-blooded cast of snakes, lizards, exotic turtles, frogs, and salamanders.
Feel your jaw drop at the exquisite diving skills of the caiman lizard, leaping from perch to pool to snatch a snail from the bottom.
Let your eyes pop as you gaze upon the New Caledonia gecko—the world’s largest gecko—and hear this critter growl like a dog!
That’s not all, folks. You’ll also encounter the supersize Solomon Island skink, the emerald green Fiji Island iguana, and the black-headed python.
They’re all right this way . . .
Reptile Discovery Center (Jessie Cohen/NZP)
If the Smithsonian’s National Zoo stationed a barker outside the Reptile Discovery Center (RDC) these days, that’s what you might hear. The tone may be a bit frenzied, but there’s ample reason for excitement. The RDC team is shaking things up, bringing in more than a dozen new species.
“We are looking for animals that would intrigue a visitor,” says curator Jim Murphy. “This was a pretty static collection for a long time. We are also looking for animals that are endangered or part of a special breeding program. And animals that might lead to some interesting research.”
Biologist Matt Evans describes the new approach as “a shifting in the nature of the story we want to tell here. We are highlighting endangered species. Most of the new animals we are bringing in are threatened in some way. Some are on the brink of extinction. To make room for them, in 2010 we shipped out dozens of non-endangered animals—over ten species—to other zoos.”
The RDC team hopes that this sharper focus on endangered species will inspire visitors toward a greater ethic of wildlife stewardship. They also hope to imbue a younger generation with a passion for these often overlooked animals.
The exodus set off a blizzard of paperwork and procedures. Zoo officials ensured that each departing animal had the necessary documentation. Then animal-care staff and transport experts figured out the best way to move creatures to their new homes.
Participants in the mass departure included a northern pine snake, two Brazilian rainbow boas, two Everglades rat snakes, and two green tree pythons—all of which went to the Big Apple’s Staten Island Zoo. Eight leopard tortoises went to Maryland’s CatoctinWildlife Preserve and Zoo; a bearded dragon to Zoo Atlanta; three veiled chameleons to Colorado’s Pueblo Zoo; an Asian water dragon to the Cincinnati Zoo; and five leopard geckos to Bramble Park Zoo in South Dakota.
Green tree monitor (Mehgan Murphy/NZP)
The RDC team then prepared new exhibit spaces for its influx of endangered animals. Nine species arrived last year.
Beyond those already mentioned, the list includes the fantastic leaf-tailed gecko from South Carolina’s Riverbanks Zoo as well as two Timor pythons, three green tree monitors, four Hamilton’s Pond turtles, and three spectacular spider tortoises from the Wildlife Conservation Society’s Bronx Zoo and the San Diego Zoo.
In 2011, keepers plan to introduce four more species to the show. Visitors will meet a native of Southeast Asia, the highly endangered impressed tortoise. A pair of captive-bred youngsters is being donated by the Turtle Survival Alliance, a well-respected conservation group based in Georgia.
Georgian arrivals will also include four juvenile spiny-headed tree frogs from the Atlanta Botanical Gardens. The RDC team also hopes to obtain the vividly named snot otter, a salamander species also known as the hellbender.
The only non-threatened animals that are joining the collection are two black-headed pythons. “We’re getting them because they are beautiful and amazingly cool,” says Murphy. “They are just gorgeous and we all like them.”
One interesting aspect of all these animal exchanges is that no money changed hands. “All the animals we received are gifts, and everything we send out is a gift,” says Murphy. Zoos, he explains, have been moving away from buying or selling animals.
That shift is partly a reaction to one of the principal threats to their survival—the lucrative illegal trade in rare and threatened animals. One example is the going black-market price for the highly endangered radiated tortoise, a popular RDC citizen. Considered one of the world’s most beautiful tortoises, this exquisite creature displays a striking star pattern on its carapace. Brilliant yellow lines radiate from the center of each dark plate of its shell.
Fiji island iguana (Mehgan Murphy/NZP)
Radiated tortoises are one of four tortoise varieties on the island of Madagascar. All four are at the edge of extinction. Hunger for their meat (a source of protein in a poor country), loss of habitat, and overexploitation in the pet trade are contributing to their disappearance. Despite laws protecting the species, traffic continues, and the Washington Post recently reported that one collector paid $30,000 for a wild-caught radiated tortoise in what the article described as a “market-driven extinction vortex.
The phrase wild-caught deserves attention. Another attribute of a modern zoo’s reptile collection is its reliance on captive-bred animals. Few if any specimens come from the wild. Many species are endangered and legally cannot be removed from their habitat. So conservation-minded herpetologists work hard to create sustainable captive-bred populations.
Species Survival Plans
Much of this work happens under the auspices of the Association of Zoos and Aquariums (AZA), which administers three types of population-management program. The goal of these programs is to preserve some of the biodiversity that is being destroyed in the wild at breakneck speed as overpopulation, climate change, invasive species, and overexploitation take their toll. RDC has 18 species enrolled in some form of AZA plan. Seven of them take part in the most rigorous type of program—Species Survival Plans (SSPs).
“Any kind of breeding program requires certain numbers to maintain a sustainable population,” Murphy explains. “You need to avoid inbreeding and serious genetic flaws. So you determine the most unrelated animals within a species—you spread out as much as possible the relatedness—breeding animals as unrelated as possible. And you hope to create a sustainable colony.”
That is what the AZA does as a routine part of its breeding programs. For SSPs, they maintain a studbook much like that of pedigreed dogs or the ancestral lines of racing horses. A zoo participating in an SSP must be prepared to send and receive animals for breeding purposes as requested by the AZA. The plan seeks to ensure the sustainability of a healthy, genetically diverse, and demographically varied population. On the zoo’s part, this requires a major commitment in time and resources. Murphy describes participation in an SSP as “the ultimate commitment for a zoo.”
Solomon Island skink (Mehgan Murphy/NZP)
A great challenge for both the AZA and participating zoos is determining the number of SSPs that can be maintained in the face of resource limitations. The fact is that zoos have the ability to deal with only a fraction of the animals at risk. Furthermore, the AZA offers SSPs for only a selection of endangered species.
Take, for example, amphibians, which are facing a crisis. “Of the 6,000 amphibian species, a third to a half are threatened with extinction,” says Evans. “Yet only three species are managed by an SSP because there are just not the resources needed.”
For the RDC, the reality is that there isn’t space to take on all that needs to be done. “There is this constant disconnect because we can’t do everything. What do we focus on? Where do we put our resources?” says Murphy.
“The turtle guys want us to concentrate on turtles; the snake guys on snakes; the frog fellows on frogs.” He adds, “With the reptiles and amphibians, what we are watching is such an extraordinary thing in terms of loss of biodiversity. People are paralyzed. They don’t know what to do.”
“We need to limit expectations to doable goals,” Murphy continues. “We cannot save the world’s biodiversity. We may be able to save a few species, but our guys—reptiles and amphibians—get lost in the shuffle when compared with the charismatic megafauna.”
Facing the reality that zoos can work with only a fraction of the animals at risk means keepers and curators carefully evaluate where to pack their punch. Meticulous thought and planning resulted in the new cast of characters coming to the RDC. Most of the animals are young, and keepers hope to breed them in the coming years. The RDC currently participates in SSPs for the Panamanian golden frog, Chinese alligator, Cuban crocodile, Komodo dragon, Malagasy leaf-tailed gecko, Fiji Island banded iguana, and radiated tortoise.
Fantastic leaf-tailed gecko (Mehgan Murphy/NZP)
One of those SSPs—for the Panamanian golden frog—testifies to the importance of never giving up hope. Some scientists think this colorful animal went extinct in the wild in 2007. Others think it’s holding on— barely. The Zoo received eight pairs of these critters in December 2004 and successfully created a captive colony.
Between 2006 and 2010, 102 offspring took up residence in ten other zoos, and the RDC plans on providing zoos with another 80 frogs via captive breeding this year at the recommendation of the SSP. Some day, these animals—or their descendants—may be reintroduced into the wild.
Scientists hope to tell similar stories about other imperiled species. Perhaps some of the RDC’s young visitors, inspired by the new cast of characters, will bring such hopeful stories to life.
—Frequent contributor VALERIE MAY is a freelance writer and web producer.
If you have a comment about Smithsonian Zoogoer magazine, please email it to us.Smithsonian Zoogoer 40(2) 2011. Copyright 2011 Friends of the National Zoo. All rights reserved.