Pet Lizards: Large, Small, and Colorful Insectivores

Rainbow Whiptail

Uploaded to Wikipedia Commons by DiverDave

The world’s astonishing lizard diversity – 5988 species have been described to date – is mirrored by the huge array of species now available to reptile enthusiasts. In recent years, refined husbandry and breeding techniques have introduced and re-introduced many fascinating lizards to the pet trade. Today I’d like to cover several that might interest folks with varying degrees of experience. I’ll review others in the future…until then, please post notes about your own favorites below, as those mentioned here are just a small sample.

 

Important Notes

A highly-varied diet is essential if you are to have success in keeping insectivorous lizards. Crickets and mealworms alone, even if powdered with supplements, are not an adequate diet for any species.

 

Always provide your lizards with the largest possible enclosure. Large terrariums will simplify the establishment of a thermal gradient (areas of different temperatures). Thermal gradients, critical to good health, allow lizards to regulate their body temperature by moving between hot and cooler areas.

 

Few diurnal (day-active) lizards will thrive without a source of UVB light.  If a florescent bulb is used (the Zoo Med 10.0 UVB Bulb is ideal), be sure that your pet can bask within 6-12 inches of it. Mercury vapor bulbs broadcast UVB over greater distances, and provide beneficial UVA radiation as well.

 

The following information is meant to provide an overview. Please post below for more detailed information.

 

Emerald Swift

Uploaded to Wikipedia Commons by Charlesjsharp

Emerald Swift, Sceloporus malachiticus

Also known as the Green Spiny Lizard, mature males are breathtaking even by lizard standards. Note the Latin species name – malachite green, with a blue tint, best describes these beauties. Although many in the trade are wild-caught, captive births (they bear live young) are becoming more common. Emerald Swifts range from southern Mexico (Yucatan) through Central America to Panama, and are restricted to cloud forests and similar mountainous habitats.

 

Unfortunately, as with most habitat specialists, care can be somewhat complicated. Emerald Swift terrariums must be kept rather cool and humid (74-76 F, humidity 60-70%), but hot, dry areas (90 F) must also be available. As airflow is important to their health, the screen top should not be covered with plastic as a means of increasing humidity; rather, a reptile fogger, or frequent hand-misting, should be employed.

 

A pair might get by in a 30 gallon terrarium, but a 55 gallon, which will also support a second female, is preferable. Driftwood and rocks should be supplied for climbing and basking; all rocks should be placed on the tank’s floor, not on the substrate, so that tunneling lizards will not be crushed. UVB exposure is essential. A highly-varied diet comprised of well-fed, calcium and vitamin-supplemented roaches, crickets, butterworms, waxworms, calciworms, silkworms, hornworms and wild caught insects is critical for their long-term health. Like most related lizards, Emerald Swifts are high-strung and should be viewed as pets to observe rather than handle.

 

Long tailed Grass Lizard

Uploaded to Wikipedia Commons by B kimmel

Long Tailed Grass Lizard, Takydromus sexlineatus

This active, attractive lizard is also sold as the Asian Grass or Six Lined Grass Lizard. Originally available only as wild-caught imports, they have proven to be prolific breeders, with multiple clutches per year being common. Their huge natural range extends from India and China through most of Southeast Asia to Indonesia. Long toes and an extraordinarily-long tail (an individual with a 2.5 inch long body will sport an 8 inch tail!) enable these little acrobats to hunt in the “canopy” of their grassland home – a niche unavailable to other lizards.

 

Although small, Grass Lizards are very active. A trio should be provided a 20 long to 30 gallon terrarium. If given sufficient space and cover, a small group can be maintained together; success has also been reported in housing them with small geckos, treefrogs and anoles. The terrarium should be well-stocked with real and artificial plants and branches, as they are stressed in bare enclosures.   UVB exposure is essential, and a temperature gradient of 72-85 F, with a basking site of 90-95 F, should be established.  A diet comprised of as many insect species as possible must be supplied; crickets and mealworms alone are not adequate.

 

Sudan Plated Lizard

Uploaded to Wikipedia Commons by Haplochromis

Sudan Plated Lizard, Gerrhosaurus (Broadleysaurus) major

This thickly-built lizard appears quite formidable, but it is actually calm in demeanor, and usually becomes a most responsive pet. Also a long-lived pet – a pair under my care at the Bronx Zoo was still actively-courting at age 25+. The “Sudan” part of this lizard’s name is misleading, for its enormous range extends from that country clear across the width of Africa, and south along the continent’s western coast to South Africa. “Plated” is, however, apt, as they sport very sturdy, thick scales. Sudan Plated Lizards favor semi-arid scrub, brushy savannas and lightly-wooded grasslands, and may also colonize parks and other developed areas.

 

Plated Lizards really come into their own in large enclosures, and should not be considered unless a cage of at least 4’ x 3’ x 3’ (and preferably larger) is available. Those I’ve kept in large zoo exhibits were doing something interesting all day long…the same cannot be said for the many poorly-housed specimens I’ve seen over the years. They prefer to bask on rocks, and are inveterate diggers. Be sure to place all rocks on the terrarium’s floor, not on the substrate, or a lizard may tunnel beneath one and be crushed. A deep layer of sand and gravel should cover the cage bottom; PVC tubes and similar shelters make great retreats. Plated Lizards do well at a temperature gradient of 76-88 F and with a basking site of 95F. Ample UVB exposure is essential.

 

Providing a varied diet to these ever-hungry lizards is a simple matter, as little will be refused. Mine relished the cicadas, crayfish and may beetles, along with all of the standard feeder insects. Interestingly, they also take earthworms, which are rejected by most arid-adapted lizards. An occasional pink mouse can be offered, but rely primarily upon supplements rather than vertebrates as a calcium source (wild individuals do take the occasional small lizard or snake, but they are mainly insectivorous). Fruit is accepted by many individuals, but they seem to do fine without it.

 

Hi, my name is Frank Indiviglio. I’m a herpetologist, zoologist, and book author, recently retired from a career spent at several zoos, aquariums, and museums, including over 20 years with the Bronx Zoo.

Please check out my posts on Twitter and Facebook.   Each day, I highlight breaking research, conservation news and interesting stories concerning just about every type of animal imaginable. I look forward to hearing about your interests and experiences as well, and will use them in articles when possible.

 

Please also post your questions and comments below…I’ll be sure to respond quickly. Thanks, until next time, Frank.

 

Further Reading

The Best Diets for Insect-Eating Lizards

 

How to Breed Swifts and Spiny Lizards

Diamondback Terrapin Care: Keeping the USA’s Most Unique Turtle

Diamndback terrapin

Uploaded to Wikipedia Commons by Tom

The Diamondback Terrapin (Malaclemys terrapin) is often described as the most beautiful turtle in the Western Hemisphere, if not the world. It is also distinguished by being the only turtle adapted to life in estuaries, salt marshes and other brackish habitats (water that is neither fresh nor marine). Long considered a delicate pet, the needs of this spectacular animal are now well-understood, and captive-bred specimens are increasingly available. My first Diamondback, received in childhood, was a hatchling. That ill-fated creature was quickly consumed by a Blue-Claw Crab (long story!), but later experiences with this species in the wild, at home and in zoos has (hopefully!) enlightened me as to their proper care. We still have much to learn, however, so please post your own observations below.

 

Description

The Diamondback Terrapin varies greatly throughout its range, but is always breathtaking. The carapace, marked with deep concentric grooves and ridges, is unique in the turtle world. Other shell markings vary, with the most eye-catching being born by the aptly-named Ornate Diamondback (M. t. macrospilota) of Florida. The skin is also unusually-attractive, ranging from pearl-gray to black in color, and decorated with dark flecks and slashes. Males average 5-6 inches in length, while females may approach 10 inches.

 

Range and Habitat

Although the Diamondback Terrapin is a habitat specialist, its range is among the largest of any US turtle. Seven subspecies are found along the Eastern and Gulf coasts of the USA, from Cape Cod, Massachusetts through the Florida Keys and along most of Texas’ eastern coast (to the vicinity of Corpus Christi). An isolated population lives along Bermuda’s coastline.

 

Diamondbacks are found only in those habitats that straddle the line between fresh and salt water – coastal salt marshes, estuaries, tidal flats near river mouths and protected lagoons. Highly aquatic, they often bask by floating at the water’s surface. Some populations also spend varying amounts of time in purely-marine water.

 

Tidal creek

Uploaded to Wikipedia Commons by Captain-tucker

Tidal creeks spanned by footbridges are great places to observe wild Diamondbacks. If unmolested, they will forage and bask without regard for prying eyes. I know of several sites on Long Island, NY where, due to the height of the footbridges, I can sometimes see terrapins picking snails and other invertebrates from bridge pilings.

 

Populations have been decimated by collection for the food trade and habitat loss, and many perish as “by-catch” in commercial crab traps. These unique turtles are protected throughout their range, but regulated commercial harvesting is permitted.

 

The Terrapin Aquarium

Even by aquatic turtle standards, Diamondback Terrapins are extremely active. While a 75 gallon aquarium might suit a male, females need tanks of at least 100 gallon capacity, commercial turtle tubs or ponds.

 

A dry basking surface is essential. Commercial turtle docks and ramps suffice for smaller specimens, but adults will likely sink anything that is not affixed to the glass with silicone adhesive. Cork bark wedged between the aquarium’s sides is another option.

 

Hatchling

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Salinity of the Water

While individuals from some populations have adapted to fresh water in captivity, keeping them so is not recommended. Fungal and bacterial skin infections are commonly seen when Diamondbacks are denied access to salt water, and internal ailments may develop as well.

 

Marine salt marketed for aquarium fish should be used to raise salinity to 1.014-1.018. Water evaporation will cause the salinity to increase (salt does not evaporate), so be sure to take weekly readings with an aquarium hydrometer. 

 

Diamondback Terrapins remove some salt from the water they ingest, but should also be placed in fresh water 1-2 x weekly and allowed to drink for 10-20 minutes. Some keepers do fine with less-frequent fresh water immersion, and by using rock salt instead of aquarium salt, but I prefer to err on the side of caution.

 

Filtration

Water quality is extremely important…more so than for most other turtles. Fouled water invariably leads to skin infections. As Diamondbacks are adapted to the alkaline water habitats, it is advisable to check your aquarium’s pH regularly with a simple test kit or pH strip. Turtle wastes and uneaten food will cause the water to become acidic, which will leave your pets open to attack by various fungi and bacteria.

 

Turtles are messy feeders and very hard on water quality. Unless the enclosure can be emptied and cleaned several times weekly, a powerful submersible turtle filter or canister filter will be necessary. Even with filtration, partial water changes are essential. Please see the articles under “Further Reading” for more on filtration, and links to useful models.

 

mediaRemoving your turtles to an easily-cleaned container for feeding will lessen the filter’s workload and help to keep the water clean; please see the article linked below.

 

Substrate

Diamondback Terrapins are best kept in bare-bottomed aquariums. Gravel traps wastes, which greatly complicates cleaning.

 

Light

A source of UVB radiation is essential. If a florescent bulb is used (the Zoo Med 10.0 UVB Bulb is ideal), be sure that the turtle can bask within 6-12 inches of it. Mercury vapor bulbs broadcast UVB over greater distances, and also provide beneficial UVA radiation.

 

Heat

Water temperatures of 70 – 76 F should be maintained. These large, robust brutes often break typical aquarium heaters, so choose a “turtle-proof” model. An incandescent bulb may be employed to heat the basking site to 85-90 F.

 

Green Crab

Uploaded to Wikipedia Commons by Lmbuga

Feeding

The Diamondback Terrapin’s broad, crushing jaw surfaces are an adaptation to a diet comprised largely of hard-shelled crustaceans and mollusks such as crabs, snails, clams, mussels, barnacles and shrimp; fish, marine worms and algae (seaweed) are also taken. Pets should be offered a diet based upon whole marine animals such smelts, shiners and other bait fish, prawn, crabs (i.e. bait crabs), squid, conch, periwinkles (available in many seafood stores) and similar foods. I occasionally use bags of mixed “chowder” seafood as a means of adding variety to the diet.

 

Collecting Diamondback Terrapin food brings one into contact with countless fascinating creatures, so I try to gather or trap snails, mussels, clams, spider crabs and fishes for my charges whenever possible.

 

Most individuals will also accept commercial turtle pellets and trout chow, which can comprise 40-50% of the diet. I favor Zoo Med’s products and Reptomin.

 

Without sufficient exercise, your terrapin’s jaws will quickly become over-grown. Shells, exoskeletons and bones also supply calcium, which is needed in great quantities by this dietary specialist. A cuttlebone or turtle mineral block should be available as a calcium supplement and to supply beak-trimming exercise.

 

Breeding

Gravid (egg-bearing) females usually become restless and may refuse food. They should be removed to a large container (i.e. 5x the length and width of the turtle) provisioned with 6-8 inches of slightly moist soil and sand. Gravid females that do not nest should be seen by a veterinarian as egg retention invariably leads to a fatal infection (egg peritonitis). It is important to note that females may develop eggs even if un-mated, and that pets may produce several clutches each year.

 

The 4-20 eggs may be incubated in moist vermiculite at 80-82 F for 55-65 days.

 

Temperament

Diamondback Terrapins make very responsive pets. Most feed readily from the hand, and adapt well to busy households. However, all turtles are capable of administering powerful bites and scratches when frightened, and must be handled with care…this is especially true of a large species that can crush snail and clam shells!

Hi, my name is Frank Indiviglio. I’m a herpetologist, zoologist, and book author, recently retired from a career spent at several zoos, aquariums, and museums, including over 20 years with the Bronx Zoo.

Please check out my posts on Twitter and Facebook.   Each day, I highlight breaking research, conservation news and interesting stories concerning just about every type of animal imaginable. I look forward to hearing about your interests and experiences as well, and will use them in articles when possible.

 

Please also post your questions and comments below…I’ll be sure to respond quickly. Thanks, until next time, Frank.

 

Further Reading

The Best Turtle Filters

Keeping Semi-Aquatic Turtles

 

 

Hognose Snake: Breeding and Care for the Madagascar Giant

Giant Hognose Snake

Uploaded to Wikipedia Commons by MrPanyGoff

North America’s Hognose Snakes are well-known for their impressive bluffs, which make them appear large and, to many people, dangerous. If this tactic fails, they feign death most convincingly. Even after a lifetime of working with snakes in zoos and the field, I cannot help but be awed and amused by these harmless “frauds”. But their acts pale in comparison to those given by the world’s largest hognose snake, the 5-foot-long, thickly-built Madagascar Giant, Leioheterodon madagascariensis. This fantastic snake is gaining in popularity, and rightly so…it is far more active than its American counterparts, and, unlike some of them, does not limit its diet to toads.

 

Description

One can be forgiven for thinking that this impressive beast is related to the Hognose Snakes of North and South America. However, the two groups seem to be an amazing example of parallel evolution (adaptations to similar conditions) rather than close relatives.

 

Like the American hognose snakes, it is heavily-built, yellowish-tan to dark brown in color, and marked with brown, gray or black blotches. Upturned rostral scales on the pig-like snout, similar to those seen in the New World species, assist it in burrowing and unearthing prey.

Adults average 4-5 feet in length, but appear larger due to the thickness of their bodies.

 

At Kirindy reserve, Madagascar

Uploaded to Wikipedia Commons by Tom Junek

When cornered, the Madagascar Giant Hognose Snake even puts on the same impressive defensive display used by its American namesakes – flattening the body and hissing loudly, after which it may roll over and feign death.

 

This species is sometimes offered under the common name of Malagasy Hognose Snake.

 

Range and Habitat

The Madagascar Giant Hognose Snake is, like many of the creatures that share its home, endemic to Madagascar and the nearby islands of Nosy Be and Nosy Sakatia. An introduced population is established on Comoro Island. Two slightly smaller related species, L. geayi and L. modestus, are also limited to Madagascar.

 

Natural Habitat

Uploaded to Wikipedia Commons by Masindrano

It favors open habitats such as grasslands, sparsely-wooded savannas, forest edges, farms, and village outskirts.

 

A colleague of mine who was studying tortoises on Madagascar said that many large individuals would appear from below ground after every rain. They seemed to materialize from nowhere and immediately began foraging for the lizards, toads and small mammals that were also roused to activity by the weather. Single-minded in their pursuit of food, the snakes would glide into and through tents and campsites without so much as a second glance at the surprised biologists they encountered.

 

Temperament in Captivity

Madagascar Giant Hognose Snakes are rear-fanged, and produce mild venom that is used to overcome their prey. They are not considered to be dangerous to people, but cautions must be exercised by keepers, and the possibility of allergic reactions should be considered. They are best handled with snake hooks, and should be kept only by responsible, experienced adults. Consult your doctor before acquiring any snake that produces venom, however mild.

 

Like American hognose snakes, Madagascar Giants tend to bluff more than bite. However, individual dispositions vary, and these always-hungry snakes may strike at nearby movements, biting their keeper in the process. Always use a long-handled tongs when offering food or working in the cage.

 

Caging

Madagascar Giant Hognose Snakes are quite active, especially when compared to their American counterparts. Youngsters may be accommodated in 20 gallon aquariums, but adults should be provided a tank or custom-built cage measuring at least 4-5’ x 4’. The enclosure’s screen lid must be secured by cage clips, as they are very powerful, even by snake standards.

 

Natural burrowers, Giant Hognose Snakes are most comfortable below-ground. A deep layer of cypress mulch or eucalyptus bark is preferable to newspapers as a substrate. A dry cave may also be utilized.

 

Sheltering in Leaf Litter

Uploaded to Wikipedia Commons by Tom Junek

Heat and Light

Madagascar Giant Hognose Snakes fare best at a temperature range of 80-85 F. An incandescent bulb should be used to create a basking spot of 90 F.

 

Large enclosures are necessary if a thermal gradient (areas of different temperatures) is to be established. Thermal gradients, critical to good health, allow snakes to regulate their body temperature by moving from hot to cooler areas.

 

A ceramic heater, heat pad, or red/black reptile night bulb can be used to provide heat after dark.

 

Diet

Not nearly as picky as North America’s Eastern Hognose Snake, which largely confines its diet to toads, the Madagascar Giant Hognose takes toads, frogs, lizards, small mammals and the eggs of tortoises, lizards and birds with equal gusto. Captive adults readily accept mice and rats, but hatchlings often prefer lizard or toad-scented rodents at first. In time, they can be weaned-over to un-scented mice.

 

Breeding

Captive-bred individuals have been quite scarce in the past, but hopefully this situation will change as more reptile enthusiasts discover the charms of these spectacular snakes. A winter cooling period of 65- 68 F, with a basking spot of 80 F, will help to stimulate reproduction. Females produce up to 12 eggs, which hatch after an incubation period of approximately 2 months at 85 F. Hatchlings average 12 inches in length.

Hi, my name is Frank Indiviglio. I’m a herpetologist, zoologist, and book author, recently retired from a career spent at several zoos, aquariums, and museums, including over 20 years with the Bronx Zoo.

Please check out my posts on Twitter and Facebook.   Each day, I highlight breaking research, conservation news and interesting stories concerning just about every type of animal imaginable. I look forward to hearing about your interests and experiences as well, and will use them in articles when possible.

 

Please also post your questions and comments below…I’ll be sure to respond quickly. Thanks, until next time, Frank.

 

Further Reading

Your First Snake: Some Considerations

Study Hints at Global Snake Decline

Red Eared Slider Turtles: Finding the Best Calcium Sources

Sliders basking

Uploaded to Wikipedia Commons by Flicka

Red-Eared Sliders, Snapping Turtles, Red-Bellied Turtles, Soft-shelled Turtles, Reeve’s Turtles and the various Side-necks and Snake-necks are among the world’s most popular reptilian pets. While we know much about their care, the importance of calcium in the diet is, judging from the questions I receive on this blog, still not fully realized by all keepers. One feeding tip I received from an animal importer for whom I worked as a boy has served me well throughout my career as a zookeeper, and remains the simplest way to assure adequate calcium intake. Today I’ll review it and some other very useful calcium sources.

 

Fathead minnows

Uploaded to Wikipedia Commons by Kolossus

Whole Freshwater Fishes

Whole freshwater fishes such as minnows and shiners are the best, “fool-proof” source of calcium for aquatic turtles. I rely heavily on commercially available fathead minnows (a/k/a/ “rosy reds”) and golden shiners. Both are usually raised in outdoor ponds, and have therefore consumed insects and other invertebrates in addition to prepared diets. This may give them a superior nutrition profile. Depending upon the turtle species in question, I offer fish at least once weekly.

 

I also use minnow and fish traps to catch local species, such as various dace and sunfishes (all of which also make fascinating aquarium inhabitants…but not with turtles!). I trim spiny pectoral and dorsal fins as a precaution. I also trap mummichugs (“killies”), shiners and other marine fish on occasion (these can also be purchased in bait stores). I’ve seen no problems when using these as part of the diet, but I rely primarily on freshwater species.

 

Freshwater food market species such as Tilapia, trout and white perch can be used for adult Common Snapping Turtles and other large pets. You can also feed sections of large fish to smaller turtles in order to add variety to their diets, but whole fishes with bones and internal organs should be their mainstay.

 

Mata Mata

Uploaded to Wikipedia Commons by J. Patrick Fischer

Years ago, a Bronx Zoo co-worker of mine linked goldfish-dominated diets to Mata-Mata Turtle (Chelus fimbriatus) deaths in several collections. Liver and kidney damage seem to have been involved. Used sparingly, goldfishes seem are harmless, but most zoos now avoid them.  Please see the article linked below.

 

Pre-killed pinkies (newborn, fur-less mice) are eagerly accepted by most aquatic turtles. Over-use has, however, led to kidney and liver disease in insectivorous lizards and frogs. I’ve not seen this with turtles, but have not used pinkies long term for any save several species of Australian Snake-Necks. I suggest erring on the side of caution and focusing on fish as a calcium source. I do not use furred rodents other than as a rare meal for large (“large” as in a 205 lb. Alligator Snapper and 45-60 lb. Common Snappers!) specimens.FI WITH ALL SNAPPER

 

Crayfish, Earthworms and other Invertebrates

Crayfish and other crustaceans, if fed with the exoskeleton/shell intact, are especially high in calcium. Earthworms have also proven to be a good calcium source, but levels will vary with diet. Earthworm calcium content (as well as that of crickets, roaches and others) is easy to improve if you feed them properly. Please see the articles linked below, or post here for further information.

 

Commercial Pellets

Commercial foods from Zoo Med and other well-respected companies can provide your pets with calcium and other important nutrients, but should not be used to the exclusion of whole fishes. Some that I favor and have used, for years in some cases, include Zoo Med products such as Aquatic Turtle Food, ReptiStcks and Gourmet Diet and Reptomin Food Sticks.

 

t8200Shrimp and Krill

Anecdotal evidence from several of my zoo colleagues indicates that shrimp (and krill) are an excellent calcium source for a variety of turtles…and I cannot recall many individuals that will refuse them! Frozen and freeze-dried shrimp and krill have long been used in tropical fish diets, and are readily available. You can also buy shrimp in food markets – “un-cleaned”, with shell intact, are the most healthful and least expensive choice. Most will be marine species, so I would not use as a basis of the diet.

 

Zoo Med’s Sun Dried Red Shrimp is, in my opinion, the best shrimp-option because a freshwater species (the Oriental River Shrimp, Macrobrachium nipponense) is used.

 

Calcium Blocks

Some turtles will feed directly on calcium blocks and cuttlebone, which also provide beak-trimming exercise. Try offering Turtle Bone or similar products.

 

UVB

Turtles that bask in the sun (termed “heliothermic” species) cannot use the calcium that we provide in their diets unless they have access to UVB light of the proper wavelength. This is because they must manufacture Vitamin D3 in the skin – dietary sources of D3 are not sufficient for these species. There are some exceptions, perhaps, but if denied UVB, especially when young, most will suffer severe-to-fatal health problems brought on by a calcium deficiency. Fortunately, we now have a huge array of UVB-emitting bulbs at our disposal.

 

Softtshell turtle, Pelochelys cantori

Uploaded to Wikipedia Commons by Flickr upload bot

Highly-aquatic species such as Common and Alligator Snappers, Pig-Nosed Turtles, Matas-Matas and Softshells usually do fine without UVB if provided a proper diet. However, as several of these bask at the surface in the wild, or occasionally on land, a UVB source would be useful as “insurance”.   Please see the article linked below and post here if you need specific information on UVB sources.

 

Please check out my posts on Twitter and Facebook. Each day, I highlight breaking research, conservation news and interesting stories concerning just about every type of animal imaginable. I look forward to hearing about your interests and experiences as well, and will use them in articles when possible.

 

Please also post your questions and comments below…I’ll be sure to respond quickly. Thanks, until next time, Frank Indiviglio.

 

Further Reading

Goldfish as a Food Source for Turtles

Slider, Map and Painted Turtle Care

UVB Bulbs: Insights from Herpetologists

 

 

Frog Research May Help Patients Avoid Muscle Loss

Striped Burrowing Frog

Uploaded to Wikipedia Commons by LiquidGhoul

An Australian frog that copes with droughts by entering a hibernation-like state known as aestivation is now the focus of important bio-medical research. Despite being immobile for months at a time, the Striped Burrowing Frog (Cyclorana alboguttata) suffers little of the muscle loss seen in immobile people, and in astronauts who spend long periods at reduced gravity. Two related frog species that I was lucky enough to acquire many years ago were also able to weather months without water, and in many ways seemed to be the ecological equivalent of another favorite of mine, the African Bullfrog.

 

The “African Bullfrogs of Australia”

The 13 squat, large-mouthed frogs in the genus Cyclorana are restricted to Australia, where many inhabit drought-prone regions that are inhospitable to other amphibians. Although classified with treefrogs in the family Hylidae, these odd beasts are about as far-removed from typical treefrogs as can be imagined – in fact, likely never see trees, considering where they live!

 

New Holland Frog

Uploaded to Wikipedia Commons by Poleta33

The two species that I’ve kept, the Water Holding Frog (C. platycephala) and the New Holland Frog (C. novaehollandiae), looked and acted like mini-African Bullfrogs. Capable of taking enormous meals (including same-sized tank-mates), they grew almost before my eyes. In the wild, most breed in temporary pools whenever it rains, eat like mad, store water in the bladder, and then disappear below ground. If the dry period is prolonged, a cocoon of shed skin will be formed about the body.

 

Muscle-Protecting Genes Discovered

The Striped Burrowing Frog has often been used as a model in studies seeking to slow or reverse muscle wasting in immobile people. Related studies have revealed that the loss of muscle tissue that occurs when we are unable to move is caused by protein-degrading molecules known as Reactive Oxygen Species.

 

Water Holding Frog

Uploaded to Wikipedia Commons by PurpleHz

Now, researchers at the University of Queensland have isolated a specific gene that seems to protect this frog’s muscle cells from damage during long periods of inactivity. As the gene, aptly named Survivin, is also found in humans, lessons learned by studying the frog could possibly be of benefit to us as well.

 

Another gene that may help to avoid muscle loss has also been identified. Known as Checkpoint Kinase 1, this gene regulates cell division and DNA repair. Researchers are also investigating the possibility that Striped Burrowing Frog muscles are assisted by high levels of protective antioxidants.

 

Applying these findings to human patients seems to be a long way off, but the research hold promise. In fact, similar muscle-protecting mechanisms have been found to be at work in hibernating mammals such as squirrels, which are a bit closer to us on the evolutionary scale.

 

I’ll pass along updates as they become available…please also share anything related that you may learn by posting below, thanks.

Hi, my name is Frank Indiviglio. I’m a herpetologist, zoologist, and book author, recently retired from a career spent at several zoos, aquariums, and museums, including over 20 years with the Bronx Zoo.

Please check out my posts on Twitter and Facebook.   Each day, I highlight breaking research, conservation news and interesting stories concerning just about every type of animal imaginable. I look forward to hearing about your interests and experiences as well, and will use them in articles when possible.

 

Please also post your questions and comments below…I’ll be sure to respond quickly. Thanks, until next time, Frank.

 

Further Reading

 

The Most Bizarre New Frogs

 

Amphibian learning Abilities (Toad Meets Bee)

 

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