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Arachnids and Herps: A Zookeeper’s Scary Halloween Stories

Anaconda by truckEach Halloween, I think back to the close calls I’ve had during a lifetime of work in zoos and the field. I suppose some, such as narrow escapes from a Kodiak Bear and an enraged King Cobra, would qualify as “near death experiences.” Others, i.e. wrestling huge Green Anacondas from Venezuelan swamps and mixing it up with a giant, wild-caught Reticulated Python, were dangerous but manageable, and have provided me with ample fodder for “war stories”.   I’ll summarize a few of these today. I’d also like to highlight Windscorpions, Hellbenders and other creatures that appear to be dangerous but do not actually deserve their fearsome reputations.


My Scariest Experience

When you are lucky enough to send an entire lifetime working with creatures ranging (literally!) from ants to elephants, a few encounters that set the heart to full throttle are inevitable. In contrast to what you may see posted on social media by self-styled “adrenaline junkies”, serious professionals do not actively seek trouble – enough comes along on its own.


Kodiak bear

Uploaded to Wikipedia Commons by Yathin S Krishnappa

Mammals, with their advanced abilities to plan and respond, demand special respect from zookeepers and field researchers, and are responsible for more injuries and fatalities than are other groups. My closest call came courtesy of a Kodiak bear that weighed-in at approximately 1,200 lbs. With one eye patched (another story!), I failed to notice an unlocked door when I moved the animal into its shift cage. I entered the main holding cage and began cleaning, noticing in passing that the light from the hallway suddenly dimmed, and then was back to normal. As my brain registered that there were no passing clouds to dim the light, I heard the sound of tools falling – and I knew what had happened.


I stuck my head out of the cage, and came face to face with the bear. It was in front of the nearest door (of course!), and stood up to its full 12 foot height as I appeared. My mad dash through the building, around corners and down 2 flights of stairs set some type of record I’m sure. The exit I reached had to be opened via a key but, amazingly the right one (on a ring with 15 others), appeared in my fingers as I reached the door.


I made the standard radio emergency calls, and NYPD was first on the scene. The officer, whom I knew well, patted his weapon and said all would be okay should the bear break through the building’s door before the big game rifles (always on site for emergencies) and anesthesia darts arrived. Then the beast’s huge head appeared at a window – the officer looked at his weapon and said “This would just make him angry” (that’s a cleaned-up version of his actual comment!).


Co-workers arrived and asked why I was holding a broomstick; I didn’t know, but must have instinctively grabbed it while fleeing the scene. “Toothpick for the bear” quipped the once again cocky police officer! Fortunately, the bear was drugged and returned to its cage without further incident, and I (somehow!) remained employed.


Pygmy Hippo skull

Uploaded to Wikipedia Commons by Uwe Gille

Anesthetized animals that woke up unexpectedly – including a tiger that was beside me in a van and a polar bear with which I was temporarily sharing a shipping crate – also livened up my days at the Bronx Zoo. Wrestling animals into shipping crates was always risky – a guanaco treated me to several cracked ribs, and pygmy hippos, nyala antelope, bison and too many others to list here all did their best to exact their pound of flesh. Escaped gorillas, snow leopards, gibbons and others added to the excitement. I’ll detail these and others in future articles…until then, please post your own questions and observations below.


SMILE,RAT SNAKERampaging Reptiles and Invertebrates

Three trips to capture and tag Green Anacondas in the Venezuelan llanos provided me with a lifetime of interesting and sometimes dangerous experiences. Accidentally grabbing an electric eel or stepping on a fresh water ray were actually the most risky aspects of the work, but the snakes did their best to leave their mark as well – as evidenced by the tooth that remains embedded in my wrist to this day (the resulting infection was far more serious than the bite itself). One especially aggressive anaconda grabbed a co-worker in what was undoubtedly a feeding attempt – you can read more in the article linked below.  Of course, as you can see from the photo above, many reptiles are harmless in the right hands…and at the right size!


Venomous snakes pose great risks to zookeepers, because we must physically move the animals in the course of servicing their exhibits. Special challenges were presented to me by Spitting Cobras that escaped after a visitor encouraged his son to kick-in the glass front of their exhibit, and by a King Cobra at large in an airport. Danger-wise, crocodilians are in a class by themselves – none more so than the fast, high-jumping and always feisty Cuban Crocodile. A pitched battle between 7 individuals and 2 enormous False Gharials, into which I and 2 co-workers inserted ourselves, was both thrilling and frightening. This story is recounted in colleague Pete Brazaitis’ fine book You Belong in a Zoo. You can also read more about this incident, and those mentioned earlier, in the articles linked below.


Alligator at SIZInvertebrates have generally treated me well, but I was once awakened by a frantic call from a biologist who had left some recently-collected tropical millipedes in my care. Two researchers working with these creatures had recently died, and a toxin released by the animals was the suspected cause. It turned out to be a false alarm. Interestingly, some South American monkeys do rub these millipedes into their fur. Secretions released by the agitated millipedes are believed to repel insect pests and/or kill parasites.


Scary When First Seen, but…

First impressions matter, and this is especially true where fear is concerned. Many relatively harmless creatures are fearsome in appearance, and can thus bluff their way out of trouble. And it is not only novices that can be fooled. I’ve collected and reared dragonfly larvae since childhood, and have handled the adults of dozens of species. While larger ones, some of which capture small fish, can deliver a slight nip, none have stingers. Some years ago, I caught a beauty on St. Croix. As I examined it, the bright red abdomen quickly curved forward and the tip pressed against my skin…a harmless ruse, but I instinctively dropped the insect and off it flew!


The bizarre Windscorpions or Sun Spiders, sometimes kept by arachnid enthusiasts, can administer a painful bite with their huge jaws. But their threatening appearance, and unsettling habit of scurrying after people in order to hide in the shade they provide, lends them a reputation that far exceeds their capability to do harm.



Uploaded to Wikipedia Commons by Brian Gratwicke

The USA’s Hellbender, a huge, aquatic salamander, has much more to fear from us than vice-versa. But it is just so odd-looking, and so infrequently seen, that its appearance on the end of a fishing line always causes a stir. All of my childhood herp books carried a statement to the effect that “most fisherman cut the line once its ugly, flat head appears”… “Ah, to have such problems” I thought, longing for the chance to encounter one. I still haven’t – at least not in the wild – but I have had the great pleasure of meeting its 5-foot-long cousin, the Japanese Giant Salamander, in Japan.


Another US native, the beautiful Rainbow Snake, also generates unwarranted fear. It and the related Mud Snake bear a hard, pointed scale at the tail’s tip. When handled, they press this into the skin of the would-be-collector. No damage is done, but they are often dropped in response, and have earned the name “stinging snake” in some regions. Various centipedes employ a similar tactic, but it their case toxins may be injected, and the distraction sets one up for a very painful and potentially dangerous bite.



Uploaded to Wikipedia Commons by Braboowi

Vampires, Ghosts and Goblins

Vampire, Ghost, and Thailand Fanged Frogs, Goblin Sharks, caecilians that consume their father’s living skin, parrot-eating bats, Halloween Crabs and numerous others are great creatures to investigate as the creepiest of holidays approaches. You can read more about them in this article.



Further Reading

Tagging Anacondas in Venezuela

Cobra and Python Escapes

Working with Large Crocodiles


Exciting New Exotic Animal Displays in our Reptile Room

In the Reptile Room section of our Lancaster, Pennsylvania retail store, our expert staff is always creating new and exciting displays.  These amazing displays rarely get the exposure they deserve – so we wanted to take a moment and highlight their extraordinary work on That Reptile Blog. Check them out below or stop by our store and see for yourself!



Mantella Tank

This display features the unique Mantella frog (Mantella ebenaui) in a 40 gallon Marineland Perfecto aquarium.  The brown variety of this rare frog is native to Madagascar.  The landscape includes river rock gravel, topped with several live plants, including creeping fig, liverwort and begonia.  The staff has also included a mini water reservoir with several small goldfish.



What makes this set up special, is that the tank is fully sustaining ecosystem that requires no filtration and little maintenance.  The system relies on the live plants and gold fish to digest nutrients created by the breakdown of uneaten food and waste.  The only maintenance required is feeding the Mantella and trimming back plants as needed.  This set up is maintained by several members of our staff, including Josh Mangan.




 IMG_0876Volcano Tank

This awesome “active” volcano was handcrafted by our Reptile Room associate Jesse Taylor.  The inventive design includes a Zoo Med Repti-Fogger surrounded by natural Eco Earth bedding.  The fogger releases a steamy mist that creates the appearance of volcanic activity.  Housed in an 18 in. x 18 in. x 24 in. Exo Terra Glass Terrarium, the ecosystem also includes an Eco Earth and live seasonal moss base, as it is prepared to hold African Reed Frogs.



IMG_0952Customized Blue Gliding Frog Terrarium

Created by Reptile Room supervisor Ryan Chillas, this great set up features two Vietnamese Blue Gliding Frogs.  To best replicate the natural environment of the frogs, Chillas created a detailed, natural set up that includes a water reservoir and waterfall.  He added a river rock base and several live plants, including creeping fig, liverwort and a peace lily.

To create the waterfall, Chillas borrowed some non-toxic expanding foam sealant from our pond section.  He used it to fashion a back wall that holds an Aquatop fountain pump.  The pump draws water from the bottom reservoir and moves it to the top of the foam wall.  Chillas also added petrified wood and rocks throughout the foam wall.  Adding live plants, it creates the perfect climbing environment that the arboreal Blue Gliding Frogs would find in their natural habitat.


If you’d like to check out these great displays, stop by our Reptile Room in our Lancaster, Pennsylvania store. In addition to these animals, we also have a large variety of lizards, tortoises and spiders to pique your curiosity.  You can check with Josh, Jesse or Ryan in person or speak with any of the members of our helpful expert staff.  We are always ready, willing and able to answer any questions you might have!





American Museum of Natural History: A Visit to the Live Spider Exhibit

I’ve crisscrossed every inch of the American Museum of Natural History – unquestionably the world’s greatest – innumerable times since childhood (and once tried to scale its walls, to capture bats…long story!). Friends working there have kindly taken me behind-the-scenes in several departments, and my 6-year-old nephew is more familiar with the institution than are many adults. But despite having spent a lifetime working with animals at the Bronx Zoo, I am still thrilled each time a new, temporary live animal exhibit opens at AMNH – all are very well done, and perfect for adults and children alike. The current exhibit, Spiders Alive!, is no exception. Although I’ve collected and cared for hundreds of Arachnid species, and my little sidekick has also racked up some impressive experiences, we have visited several times so far, and enjoyed as much as did any novice!


spiderdisplay1The Displays

As with all similar AMNH exhibits, Spiders Alive! features interesting specimens in large, beautifully-designed exhibits along with state-of-the art graphics, huge photos, hands-on interactive opportunities and even a giant anatomically-correct spider sculpture for kids to swarm over (some held back…I guess it was very realistic to them!). Friendly, well-informed volunteers and staff are always on hand to answer questions and help with using the interactive displays. Entry is timed, so there are never crowds or long waits to see or use anything, and visitors are generally well-behaved and polite.


One display lets the visitor move a magnifier over a live spider to portray an enlarged view on an overhead screen; my nephew gave that one – and the very nice attending AMNH staffer – a workout! Happily for the budding artists among us (please see photos), spider hideaways and exhibit furnishings are arranged in a way that allows all exhibit specimens to be easily viewed.


Learning about Spiders

The species exhibited are used to highlight a number of topics, all of which are well-explained by the graphics. Most obvious is diversity, with arboreal, burrowing, local, exotic, desert-adapted, rainforest-dwelling and other spiders with varying lifestyles being on view now. Other aspects of Arachnid natural history that are illustrated include defense, anatomy, venom, and the uses and structure of silk.


scorpThe Animals

Following are notes on several of the spiders currently on exhibit. Spider relatives, such as scorpions and the bizarre vinagaroons and tailless whip scorpions, are also featured.


Fishing Spiders: these large running spiders are for some reason ignored by spider enthusiasts and zoos alike. The local species here in the NE USA, Dolomedes tenebrosus, is an impressive hunter of small fishes and tadpoles (please see photo of a female with eggs, currently in my collection). My nephew readily tackles snakes exceeding his own length, but when I asked him to swim under a dock and capture this spider, he quickly replied “No way, man”!


Goliath Bird-Eating Tarantula: perhaps the world’s largest spider, this species is a favorite of private and professional spider keepers. Field reports indicate that they prey upon small rodents, snakes, frogs, lizards and other vertebrates in addition to insects. Certainly, those under my care startled me with their voracious appetites.


Ornamental Tarantulas: Beautifully-colored but rather aggressive – and very fast moving, I can assure you! – these SE Asian spiders are highly arboreal.


Black Widow and Brown Recluse: known to many folks here in the USA, the habits of these two potentially-dangerous spiders are well-explained.


Orb Weavers: Several species are on view, each in the center of a large, intricately-woven web.


Funnel Web Spider: the species displayed is not the highly venomous Australian spider of the same name but rather a harmless and very common US native (Agelenopsis sp.). I’ve often kept these interesting spiders…but until now believed I was the only one to do so! Vertical “trip lines” knock flying insects onto a sheet-like web, whereupon the spider rushes out and drags its hapless victim down the funnel-shaped retreat. Always happy to demonstrate their talents to onlookers, I find funnel web spiders to be fascinating captives.


Several of the other species featured are well-known or common, but their habits are revealed in a way that cannot help but cause one to appreciate these maligned but fascinating little beasts. Some others that you can see include Mexican Red-Kneed Tarantulas, House Spiders, Trap-Door Spiders and Wolf Spiders.



Further Reading

Keeping the Fishing Spider

Spider Hunting Methods – Beyond Webs

 Spiders Alive!

Bearded Dragon or Leopard Gecko? Comparing the Ownership Costs

Both Bearded Dragons and Leopard Geckos are about as close to “perfect” as a reptile pet can be, and either is a great choice for new and experienced owners alike.  But the costs of ownership, both short and long term, do vary between the two.  Novice reptile enthusiasts sometimes obtain their first specimens without fully investigating this point, and may be surprised (or delighted!) at the expenses involved in their care – especially as each can reach 20 or even 30+ plus years of age!  In the following article I’ll compare the start-up and long-term costs of owning Bearded Dragons and Leopard Geckos.


There are also major differences in the habits, activity levels and care needs of Bearded Dragons and Leopard Geckos.  Please see the articles linked under “Further Reading” for a comparison of their habits and husbandry, and for detailed care information.  As always, I welcome any questions or observations that you may wish to post.



Bearded Dragon or Leopard Gecko?


Start-Up Expenses


Purchase Price

The cost per animal is similar for individuals that exhibit natural coloration.  A huge array of uniquely-colored “designer morphs” of each species has also been developed. Prices for such animals vary greatly, but are in similar ranges for both geckos and dragons.


Verdict: Similar for natural coloration – varies based on color morphs


Terrarium and Cover (single adult)t255908

Bearded Dragon: 30-55 gallon aquarium and cover

Leopard Gecko: 10-20 gallon aquarium and cover (larger is preferable)


Verdict:  Bearded Dragons require larger, more expensive habitats


UVB Fixture and Bulb

Bearded Dragon: Full length florescent UVB fixture and bulb

Leopard Gecko:   UVB exposure not required


Mercury vapor fixture and bulb


Verdict: With their UVB requirements, Bearded Dragons cost more.  




Bearded Dragon: Incandescent fixture and bulb for basking site

Red/black bulb or ceramic heat emitter (night)

Leopard Gecko:  Incandescent fixture and bulb for basking site

Heat tape or ceramic heat emitter (night)


Verdict: Bearded Dragons require higher temperatures, but the cost is negligible for the equipment.


Other Supplies

Both will also need a substrate or terrarium liner, caves, and driftwood or rocks upon which to bask.  The costs for these items are similar for each species.


Verdict: Other supplies are similarly priced across species




Bearded Dragon (adult): 36-48 insects per week

Leopard Gecko (adult):  15-25 insects per week


3 bowls salad per week


Please note that these figures are meant to provide a general idea of expected food intake.  The actual amount of food your lizard will consume is influenced by temperature, the type of insect offered (i.e. 1 cricket vs 4 sowbugs vs 2 butterworms, etc.), general health, age, and the animal’s individual metabolism.  Please see the linked articles and post any questions about your pet’s specific needs below.


Verdict: Bearded Dragon adults consume almost twice as many insects as leopard geckos – and also require salads. Juvenile requirements can be even greater. Bearded Dragons cost considerably more to feed.



Ongoing Expenses Unique to Bearded Dragons


Bearded Dragons grow significantly larger than do Leopard Geckos, and will need roomier terrariums (please see above) as they mature


UVB bulb and fixture replacement will also be necessary (Leopard Geckos do not require UVB exposure).


Ongoing Expenses Common to Both Species


200px-Leopard_gecko_with_new_tailVeterinary Care

Although both lizards are quite hardy if properly cared-for, occasional veterinary visits can be expected. The costs for such are comparable to those charged for cat or dog care.  Intestinal impactions (from swallowing substrate) and diseases related to poor nutrition may be encountered by geckos and dragons alike.


If a moist shelter is not available, Leopard Geckos may suffer retained eyelid linings when shedding, while Bearded Dragons that are denied proper UVB exposure will develop metabolic bone disease and related afflictions.


Atadenovirus infections, which are increasing in captive Bearded Dragon populations, are as yet incurable.


Verdict – Veterinary expenses are basically the same for both species


Other Expenses

Substrate replacement and vitamin/mineral supplement costs remain similar for both species over time.  Electrical expenses will also be in the same range, although Bearded Dragons require higher temperatures than do Leopard Geckos (75-110 F as opposed to 72-90 F).


In Conclusion


Overall, a Bearded Dragon is the more expensive pet to maintain, due to this species’ needs for spacious living quarters, access to UVB radiation, and large, frequent meals.  However, veterinary care needs cannot be predicted – as few visits by a relatively “inexpensive” gecko can level the field!



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.



Further Reading


The Most Bizarre New Frogs


Amphibian learning Abilities (Toad Meets Bee)


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