Hot Weather Herp Tips – Summer’s Effect on Reptiles and Amphibians

Green AnoleMost herp enthusiasts know that amphibians are usually quite sensitive to warm temperatures.  However, reptiles, even those native to tropical and desert habitats, may be severely impacted as well.  Following are some general guidelines to keep in mind at the height of summer – please write in for more detailed information about the animals in your collection.

General Considerations

Even within the hottest of natural habitats, herps find ways to escape temperature extremes.  Millions of years of evolution have brought us a great many surprises in this regard – Australia’s Water Holding Frog, for example, thrives where most unprotected creatures, even reptiles, would cook in short order.  So while desert adapted animals may be better suited to withstand heat, do not assume that they will be fine without special attention. Read More »

Boas, Anacondas & Pythons in the Wild & Captivity: An Overview



Although they represent a mere 6% of the world’s snake diversity, boas, anacondas and pythons have long monopolized the attentions of herpetologists, private snake keepers, zoos and “non-herp people” alike. Much of our fascination centers upon the families’ giants, and the huge meals they consume. At least 2 species – the African Rock Python (Python sebae), and the Reticulated Python (P. reticulatus)occasionally add people to their diet, and anecdotal evidence indicates that the same may be true of the Green Anaconda (Eunectes murinus). Captive Burmese Pythons (P. bivittatus), have on occasion killed caretakers, and the Indian Python (P. molurus) and Scrub Python (Morelia amethystinus) are certainly capable of doing the same. Even after a lifetime of working with giant constrictors, I was astonished by some of the anaconda meals (most notably a 60 lb. deer) that I was lucky enough to observe in the field.


Important Note: Green Anacondas and African Rock, Indian, Burmese and Scrub Pythons can exceed 20 feet in length, and cannot usually be properly and safely managed in private collections. Human predation, while rare, has been documented for several of these, and feral Burmese Pythons are causing ecological havoc in south Florida. As is the practice among professional zookeepers, at least 2 well-experienced adults should be on hand whenever constrictors exceeding 6 feet in length are fed or handled. Please see the article linked under “Further Reading” to read about a surprising study of human predation by Reticulated Pythons.


Anaconda by truckClassification

The world’s 40 python species are classified in the family Pythonidae and the super family Pythonoidae. Also included in Pythonoidae are the Mexican Burrowing Pythons (Lococemidae) and the Sunbeam Snakes (Xenopeltidae).


The world’s 58 boas (including the 4 anaconda species) are placed in the family Boidae. Boidae is further divided into 3 subfamilies – the True Boas and Anacondas (Boinae), the Sand Boas (Erycinae) and the Dwarf Boas (Ungaliophiinae).


Boas and pythons are considered to be “primitive” snakes, due to certain anatomical features such as vestigial pelvic girdles and rear limbs (the cloacal “spurs” seen on most species), but as you’ll see below they are extraordinarily successful. All are constrictors, and most are equipped with facial heat-sensing organs that allow them to locate warm-blooded prey at night.




At an adult size of less than 36 inches, Australia’s Pygmy Python (Antaresia perthensis), is the smallest species. At the other end of the scale, the Reticulated Python sometimes exceeds 20 feet in length. Also in the same general size category are Asia’s Indian and Burmese Pythons, the African Rock Python, and the Scrub Python of Australia.


A reward offered by the Bronx Zoo for a snake exceeding 30 feet in length remained uncollected for nearly 100 years. During my time working there, we were excited by photos of what looked to be a record-breaking Reticulated Python captured in Borneo. Upon arrival at the zoo, however, she proved to be “only” 21-23 feet long – but much stronger than the captive-bred specimens I’ve dealt with!


Brazilian Rainbow Boa

Uploaded to Wikipedia Commons by Damien Farrell


The various Dwarf Boas (Ungaliophiinae) are fully grown at 12-28 inches in length, while female Green Anacondas are the heaviest of all snakes and may equal or exceed the Reticulated Python in length.


Of nearly 500 Green Anacondas that I and co-workers tagged in Venezuela’s llanos region, a 17 foot-long, 215 lb. female proved largest; several others measured 15-16 feet in length. Reliable colleagues report sightings of larger individuals along forested rivers within the Amazon basin, but in such habitats they are nearly impossible to capture.




With a single exception (the Mexican Burrowing Python, Loxocemus bicolor), pythons are limited to the Eastern Hemisphere. Their greatest diversity is reached in Australia and New Guinea, but they are also well-represented in Africa and South/Southeast Asia. Feral populations of Burmese Pythons and African Rock Pythons are established in Florida, USA.


Adult rubber boa

Uploaded to Wikipedia Commons by USDA Forest service


Boas occur nearly world-wide in tropical and subtropical environments, but are absent from Australia. They are represented in Europe by a single species, the Javelin Sand Boa (Eryx jaculatus). Many, myself included, are surprised to learn that the Rubber Boa (Charina bottae) ranges as far north as southern Canada. Boas reach their greatest diversity in Latin America, where they are sometimes the largest terrestrial predators in their habitats. Madagascar and several Caribbean and South Pacific islands are home to numerous endemic, and often rare, species.




Boas and pythons occupy nearly every conceivable habitat, including deserts, rainforests, major cities, farms, arid woodlands, swamps, cloud forests, sand dunes, grasslands, large rivers, and many others. Some are highly specialized for life in the water, treetops, or below ground, while others, such as the Common Boa (Boa constrictor), are habitat generalists.


Timor python hatchlings

Uploaded to Wikipedia Commons by Tigerpython


All pythons produce eggs which in most if not all species are incubated by the female. By contracting their muscles, or “shivering”, females can raise the temperature of their clutch by as much as 40 F.


With a single exception (the African Ground “Python”, Calabaria reinhardtii, formerly classified as a python), all boas and anacondas give birth to live young.


Rainbow Boa consuming mouse

Uploaded to Wikipedia Commons by KaroH


Many boas and pythons are generalists that consume a wide variety of mammals, birds, reptiles, and amphibians. For example, field studies show that the Common Boa takes tamanduas, green iguanas, raccoons, bats, monkeys, birds and a huge array of other creatures with equal gusto.


Specialists are also common. Mexico’s Oaxacan Dwarf Boa, an inhabitant of cool cloud forests, feeds primarily upon frogs, salamanders and their eggs, while the reptile-partial Black Headed and Woma Pythons include frilled lizards, bearded dragons and blue-tongued skinks in their diets


Mammals weighing in excess of 100 pounds, large crocodilians, turtles and other seemingly “unlikely” meals are taken by the giants of each group. Please see the article linked below for more on large, odd snake meals.



Further Reading

Reticulated Python Attacks

Odd and Giant Snake Meals

Anaconda Care and Natural History



Barbour’s Map Turtle Care and Natural History

All thirteen Map Turtle species are both fascinating and very attractive, with several being highly prized by reptile fans. Although best reserved for experienced keepers, Barbour’s Map Turtle (Graptemys barbouri) deserves more attention from both private enthusiasts and zoos. With a specialized diet and restricted range, it faces an uncertain future in the wild. I had the good fortune to work with Barbour’s Map Turtles at the Bronx Zoo, and would like to pass along some thoughts for those up to the challenge of keeping this spectacular creature.


Barbour's map turtle

Uploaded to Wikipedia Commons by maimaip2000


Female Barbour’s Map Turtles are very impressive, with noticeably-broad heads and shells that may approach 12 inches in length. The narrow-headed males are so much smaller – a mere 3.2 to 5.2 inches long – as to appear to be of a different species.


The carapace is brown to olive-green, with pale yellow or white marks along its edge, and is topped by 2 spine-like ridges. Yellow stripes decorate the neck and legs, and there are blotches of yellow behind the eyes.


Ringed map turtle

Uploaded to Wikipedia Commons by Eekhoorntje

Other Map Turtles, while smaller, exhibit a wide array of carapace “decorations”, colors and habits.  You can read more about some of these in the articles linked below.  Pictured here is the spectacular Ringed Map Turtle (G. oculifera).


Range and Habitat

The range of this USA endemic is restricted to the Apalachicola River System in the Florida Panhandle and Georgia.


Type habitat

Uploaded to Wikipedia Commons by Sallicio

Barbour’s Map Turtle is largely limited to clear, limestone-bottomed streams that contain numerous fallen branches and trees. Highly aquatic, it spends much time basking on logs, plunging into the water when disturbed. The Barbour’s Map Turtle feeds only in water, and, except when nesting, rarely travels far from shore.


The Aquarium

These large, active turtles require spacious homes. While a 55 gallon aquarium might suit a small male, females need tanks of 125 – 200 gallon capacity, or commercial turtle tubs and ponds.


Wading pools are often easier to manage than aquariums. Koi ponds sometimes contain shelves meant to hold plants; these work well as turtle basking areas. Outdoor housing is ideal, assuming that raccoons and other predators can be excluded.


Although highly aquatic, all map turtles need a dry surface on which to bask. Commercial turtle docks will suffice for small specimens. Cork bark, wedged or affixed via silicone to the aquarium’s sides, is a good option for adults.



Turtles are messy feeders and very hard on water quality. Submersible or canister filters are necessary unless the enclosure can be emptied and cleaned several times weekly (I’ve found the Zoo Med Turtle Clean Filter to be ideal). Even with filtration, partial water changes are essential.


Removing your turtles to an easily-cleaned container for feeding will lessen the filter’s workload and help to keep the water clean.



Bare-bottomed aquariums are best, as gravel traps food and wastes, greatly complicating cleaning, and may be swallowed along with food.


Light and Heat

Heliothermic turtles (those that bask) require UVB radiation in captivity. If a florescent bulb is used (the Zoo Med 10.0 Bulb provides high UVB output), 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. Natural sunlight is the best UVB source, but be aware that glass filters-out UVB rays.


Water temperatures of 72-80 F should be maintained. An incandescent spotlight bulb should be used to warm the basking site to 90 F.



Barbour’s Map Turtles will eat or chase fishes, newts and aquatic frogs.


Females and juveniles may get along, but be prepared to house them separately as aggression often develops over time. Males often harass females with mating attempts, and may stress or bite them in the process; adult males cannot be kept together.


Freshwater clams

Uploaded to Wikipedia Commons by Boldie


In the wild, female Barbour’s Map Turtles feed almost entirely upon fresh water mussels, snails and crayfish. Males take smaller snails, insects, crayfish, and fish.


Pets should be offered a diet comprised largely of snails, crayfish, and mussels, along with whole fishes, earthworms and prawn. Those under my care accepted apple snails and other native and introduced species that I collected and bred, European land snails (introduced in NY, and also available in seafood markets), freshwater mussels and clams, periwinkles, crayfish, shiners, minnows, green crabs and fiddler crabs.


Goldfish should be used sparingly, if at all, as a steady goldfish diet has been linked to kidney and liver disorders in other turtle species. A high quality commercial turtle chow can comprise up to 30% of the diet. A cuttlebone should be available to supplement the calcium provided by whole fishes and similar foods.


Other important food items include earthworms, krill, freeze-dried river shrimp and, to a lesser extent, crickets and other insects.



Field studies indicate that females take 20 or more years to reach breeding age. This fact, along with their small natural range and past over-collection for the pet trade, threatens the future of the Barbour’s Map Turtle. Reproduction has not been well-studied in the wild, but pets have produced 6-9 eggs in June and July.


Gravid 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; please see article linked below). Gravid females that do not nest should be seen by a veterinarian as egg retention invariably leads to a fatal infection known as egg peritonitis. It is important to note that females may develop eggs even if unmated, and that captives may produce several clutches each year.


The eggs may be incubated in moist vermiculite at 82-86 F for 60-85 days. Please post below for further details concerning captive reproduction.



These shy turtles adjust well to captivity if provided proper conditions, but they may not become as responsive as other map turtles. All turtles are capable of administering powerful bites and scratches when frightened, and must be handled with care.




Further Reading

Nesting Sites for Captive Turtles

Choosing the Best Turtle Filter

Slider, Map and Painted Turtle Care



Spring Field Trips: Amphibians, Reptiles, Invertebrates, Birds

NET, LOOKING, CRAYFSHRecording the first time I see various creatures each spring is a habit that stretches back to my childhood, and to this day I keep and even re-read my old notebooks. Over the last few years, the unbridled enthusiasm of a new field partner (not to mention his wonderfully keen eyesight!), has kept me outdoors even more than in the past (see photos).

Spring 2015 has been slow to arrive and seemingly loathe to take hold here in southern NY and northern NJ. But we have persisted in looking for our favorite spring sights, and over the past several weeks have finally been rewarded with views of old favorites and some new observations as well.


Early Spring Amphibians

There are several vernal ponds in southern Westchester County, NY, where, if the weather and amphibian gods favor us, spotted salamanders, wood frogs and spring peepers can be observed breeding on the same night. As the large, vividly-colored Spotted Salamanders have always been favorites of mine, and are the most elusive of the “Big Three” early spring amphibians, I usually focus on finding them.


HOLD SPOTTED SALAMANDERLast year, we hit it just right, and were able to find males beneath leaves along the shore of a breeding pond, awaiting the females’ arrival (the sexes arrive in 2 separate waves, co-mingling only “when necessary”). I’ve found breeding groups as early as March 19th in southern NY, but last year the salamanders showed up during the second week of April. I returned to one favored site during the same week this year, only to find snow on the ground and ice along the pond’s edge! I’ll return soon, hopefully to be rewarded by the sight of their rounded, algae-tinged egg masses.


An even earlier spring breeder, the Eastern Tiger Salamander (in NY, limited in distribution to eastern Long Island) is sometimes roused to action by mid-February. I was unable to visit any sites this year, but assume they were late in breeding as well, given the frigid February we experienced.

Wood Frogs and Spring Peepers were also weeks later than usual, at least per my records, but have now (May 1) reproduced. A friend called tonight from Cape Cod to say that spring peepers were still in full chorus there.


IMG_9954Mid-April in a NJ Swamp: Snappers, Frogs, Birds & Butterflies

On April 17, 2015, we visited a small button bush swamp in northern NJ. Last year at this time, it was alive with bullfrogs, painted turtles, aquatic insects and other typical warm weather residents. We almost immediately came upon a large male common snapping turtle, half-buried in the mud in very shallow water. The cool weather rendered him quite sluggish – a plus for the little turtle wrangler who hauled him out for closer inspection! Snappers are about as cold-tolerant as a turtle can be…several years ago I found one basking on February 16th. By mid-April, they are usually their normal feisty selves, ready and willing to do battle…not so this cold, old fellow.



IMG_5757 SM FROGWe saw none of the American bullfrogs that normally abound in this swamp, but did net several second-year tadpoles that had emerged from hibernation. Green frogs were also absent from the main swamp, but we flushed several near a small, sun-warmed vernal pond. Our net failed to find any water scorpions, diving beetles or other common aquatic insects, but many over-winter as eggs, and so are difficult to locate prior to maturity.


Happily, the red-winged blackbirds were out in force, and calling all day. I’ve observed these early harbingers of spring to return to NY as early as February 2nd. A single mourning cloak, one of the few local butterflies that over-winters as an adult, flitted through the still largely-brown woodland that borders the swamp. At 6 PM, a light rain began to fall, and a small chorus of spring peepers, undaunted by daylight, started-up…assuring us, as little else can, that spring was finally here!


snapper in waterThe Great Swamp: Amorous Snappers, Snakes & Beetles

It’s impossible for a naturalist to have a disappointing visit to New Jersey’s magnificent Great Swamp, and our April 24th trip there confirmed this once again. Although perhaps a bit behind schedule, spring was now in full throttle. A pair of snapping turtles mated (or “wrestled”, according to my 7-year-old cohort!) with abandon within 2 feet of a boardwalk (please see photo). The first rainy night in June should bring the female, and almost all others in this part of the country, out to nest.


Garter, haidenGarter snakes, green frogs and painted turtles were very much in evidence, and flickers issued forth with staccato calls that seemed more suited to a central African rainforest than a NJ suburb. Our prize insect find was a larval caterpillar-hunter beetle. At the nearby Raptor Trust we were treated to several birds we hadn’t seen in some time, including short-eared owls, ravens and, most surprisingly, an albino/leucistic American robin.




Along the Hudson: Eels, Eagles & Nesting Herons

When last I searched the southern reaches of the Hudson River, back in late February, bald eagles rode some of the waterway’s many ice floes. Friends who frequent the river’s west shore north of Bear Mountain report that resident eagles are now feeding chicks, great blue herons are brooding eggs, and millions of tiny “glass eels” (juvenile American eels) are on the move.


A late spring means that there’s still time to see some of the wonderful natural events you may have missed, and that we can look forward to the explosion of life that herald’s early summer – get out there if you can, and please post your observations below!



Further Reading

Amphibian Breeding Site Conservation

Collecting Insects: Traps & Tips

Tarantulas: Are They The Right Pet for You?

Red Kneed Tarantula

Uploaded to Wikipedia Commons by George Chernilevsky

Among the world’s 900+ tarantula species (family Theraphosidae) we find a staggering diversity of sizes, colors, and lifestyles, and many that make interesting, long-lived pets. Having been involved with spider care in zoos and private collections from an early age (and at a time when only 1-2 tarantula species were readily available in the USA!), I’m pleased and somewhat astonished to see the explosion of interest here and abroad. Several species that were undescribed a few short years ago are being regularly bred by private keepers – usually to a far greater extent than is seen in zoos. However, as tarantulas become more “mainstream”, they are sometimes purchased by folks who may not have a good sense of their true natures. Unrealistic expectations will dampen the experience of both pet and pet keeper. Following are 5 critical points that the prospective tarantula owner should consider.


Please see the linked articles and post below for detailed care and breeding advice.


Defenxive posture

Uploaded to Wikipedia Commons by Sascha Grabow

Tarantulas are “Hands-Off” Pets that Cannot be Tamed

Like most creatures, Tarantulas are capable of learning, and they routinely modify their behavior in response to captivity. However, they are mainly guided by instinct, and cannot in any way be tamed or “trusted” – they will not bond with people.

Please ignore the foolish advice so common on the Internet and do not handle your tarantula (please post below for info on safely moving tarantulas). Handling is a stressful event for any tarantula. More importantly, while the venom produced by tarantulas has not (as far as we know from published reports) resulted in human fatalities, children, the elderly, and people with allergies or compromised immune systems may be at risk. Please see the article linked below for information on serious reactions caused by the bites of certain Asian tarantulas.


Tarantulas bear urticating (irritating) hairs that are used to repel predators (please see photo). Hairs that come in contact with soft tissue can cause severe injuries. In fact, a Bronx Zoo coworker of mine underwent extensive eye surgery in order to remove Red Kneed Tarantula hairs from his eye. As this person learned, hairs that are in the terrarium or on one’s hands can be just as dangerous as those deliberately shed in response to a threat.


Cobalt Blue tarantula

Uploaded to Wikipedia Commons by Flamesbane

Tarantulas are Nocturnal and Secretive

Well-adjusted tarantulas often emerge to hunt by day, but they will otherwise remain in hiding until nightfall. They will not thrive if forced to remain in the open.


Fortunately, red night-viewing bulbs will enable you to observe your pets after dark.


Your “Single” Tarantula may Surprise You with an Egg Sac

As a single mating can result in multiple egg cases, females sometimes produce eggs long after having been fertilized by a male. If you are not aware of a female’s history, you may find yourself with more tarantula-related responsibilities than you bargained for! While a fascinating endeavor (to me, at least!), rearing 100 or more tiny, cannibalistic spiderlings is not for everyone.


Cuban Green Roach

Uploaded to Wikipedia Commons by Greg Hume

Tarantulas Need Live Food

While many captives learn to take canned insects and pre-killed pink mice from tongs (do not hand-feed!), live insects will form the vast majority of your tarantula’s diet. Cricket-only diets seem to work well for many species, but the best long term results will be achieved by providing a varied menu which includes roaches, waxworms, silkworms, grasshoppers, earthworms and other invertebrates.


The “It Doesn’t Do Anything” Factor

Ideally, the new tarantula owner will be interested in her or his pet for its own sake. But most of us also wish to see how the animal lives, what it does, and so on. Well-fed tarantulas that are not in breeding mode are often about as active as the infamous “pet rock”…and are nocturnal to boot!


Fortunately, red light bulbs now enable us to watch them after dark. If you provide your tarantula with a large terrarium and appropriate living conditions, you’ll have much of interest to observe.




Further Reading

Are Tarantula Bites Dangerous: Recent Research

Keeping the World’s Largest Tarantula

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