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The Desert Tortoise – Little Known Facts and Conservation Efforts

The Desert Tortoise (Gopherus agassizi), was, in the 1960’s, a pet trade staple.  A lack of information as to its proper care and massive habitat loss has today reduced populations to alarmingly low levels.  The species is now protected, and a great deal of research has gone into its husbandry and natural history.  Yet, it seems, few appreciate just how unique this animal is.  Today I’d like to highlight some of its lesser known habits, and how they affect the future of the species.

Tortoise Diversity

Desert Tortoises are one of four tortoise species, all of the same genus, native to North America.  All are terrestrial vegetarians with forelegs modified for burrowing.

An additional 49 species of tortoises inhabit Africa (where they reach their greatest diversity), Europe, South America and Asia.  Tortoises are absent from Australia and Antarctica.

Winter Migrations

Desert Tortoises are found from southeastern California’s Mojave Desert, southwestern Arizona, southern Nevada and southwestern Utah south to northern Baja California and northern Sinaloa, Mexico, and on Tiburon Island in Gulf of California.

Desert tortoise Habitat

It is in the northern part of this range where we find a most unique winter survival strategy. Here, desert tortoises migrate to hilly areas at the onset of cold weather and hibernate in communal burrows that are 15-33 feet in length. It seems that a burrow of suitable length (over 15 feet) could not be dug by a single tortoise in one season, so these long-established burrows (and traditional migration routes) are critical to winter survival.

Effective conservation planning requires an understanding of such factors – permanent hibernation burrows may be far from the tortoises’ summer foraging areas, and thus not recognized as essential habitat when preserves are set aside.  Populations deprived of migration routes to hibernation sites will become extinct in a single winter.

Summer nights are spent in shallow, self dug burrows that are often utilized for many years.

Good Intentions Gone Bad

Another unusual impediment to Desert Tortoise conservation arose when, with good intentions, large numbers of seemingly healthy pet tortoises were returned to the wild.  These animals were responsible for introducing a virulent but difficult-to-detect respiratory illness into wild populations.  Control measures are now in place in the USA.

Desert Tortoises inhabit the centerpiece exhibit of the new reptile house at the Staten Island Zoo, which I was proud to help plan several years ago.  Please see the attached photo above, and visit if you are able.

Further Reading

A wealth of information on Desert Tortoise Conservation is posted here.

A wonderful video of a Desert Tortoise egg hatching is posted here.



WARNING!!! Senate Action on December 3rd May Ban Ownership of All Pythons

Once again we need to ask your help in opposing a poorly-researched effort to limit the responsible ownership of any and all pythons, including harmless species and those which have benefitted from the captive breeding efforts of hobbyists.

Senate Bill 373, which is up for consideration on this Thursday, December 3, 2009, seeks to prohibit the ownership of all snakes within the genus Python by classifying them as “injurious wildlife” under the Lacey Act.  The lack of foresight and scientific research that resulted in ball pythons being considered to be equally threatening to the environment as Burmese pythons is obvious.

In July of this year, the overwhelming response of reptile owners and the pet industry was instrumental in limiting the scope of a similar bill, HR 2811, to Burmese and African rock pythons only.  Our experience with that bill shows very clearly that our involvement in government action is critical, and that the system does work – but only if we participate in a timely manner.

It is critical that we act right now, as the Senate vote on this bill will be taken in 2 days – December 3, 2009.

The Pet Industry Joint Advisory Council has set up a simple method for you to register your opinion with the Senate here.  You can read more about the scope of the bill there as well.  Please take action now – we changed the future of our hobby and, in many cases, our professions, in July, and we can again.

For more valuable information concerning reptile hobbyists, you can also visit the US Association of Reptile Keepers (USARK).


The Black Pine Snake – the Rarest Species in a Well-known Group

The pine, bull and gopher snakes are a complex of 15 species that range from southern Canada through the United States and Mexico to Guatemala.  Large (to 8 feet), powerful constrictors, most species are well-studied and long-established in captivity.  The Black Pine Snake (Pituophis melanoleucus lodingi) remains, however, elusive in the wild and less well-represented in captivity.

I first worked with this striking snake at the Staten Island Zoo, home to one of the country’s most impressive snake collections, and have longed to observe it in the wild ever since.

Classification and Description

The Black Pine Snake is a melanistic form of the northern pine snake (P. m. melanoleucus) that has been given subspecies status.  One other subspecies, the Florida Pine Snake (P. m. mugitus), has been described. The Louisiana Pine Snake (pictured here) is now classified as a distinct species, P. ruthveni.

Uniformly black (rarely dark brown) above and below, the Black Pine is stoutly built.  They average 5 feet in length, with a record of 6 ½ feet.

Range and Habitat

This rare snake is limited to a few localized sites in extreme eastern Louisiana, southwestern Alabama and, possibly, Mississippi.

It is found only in association with the sandy soils of Longleaf Pine communities, a threatened habitat.  The Black Pine Snake spends most of its life underground, within pocket gopher burrows or the root systems of rotting pines.


This snake has an extremely limited range and is protected by the states in which it occurs.  In the past, habitat development and collection for the pet trade threatened its survival.  Captive populations are well-established in both zoos and the private sector.


Mating occurs in the spring, and 3-24 eggs are laid in June-August.  The clutch is hidden in a burrow or, less frequently, below a rock or log.  The young hatch in 64-79 days at 12-18 inches in length.


The natural diet has not been thoroughly documented, but likely includes deer mice, ground squirrels, chipmunks, cotton rats, rabbits, pocket gophers and ground-nesting birds and their eggs.  Prey is killed by constriction.

This and related species usually hunt below ground, within the burrows of gophers and other rodents.  Where space does not permit constriction, these powerful snakes kill rodents by forcibly pressing them against the burrow walls.  Often a number of animals will be killed in this manner before the snake stops to feed.

Pine snakes are much valued for their rodent-catching abilities and are sometimes released around farms and grain storage facilities.


When threatened, pine snakes put on an impressive display – the body swells with inhaled air that is expelled in a loud hiss, while the tail vibrates rapidly and the head is flattened.  The snake rears up in a series of ‘S” shaped curves and strikes repeatedly.  Most will flee if given the opportunity, but they do not hesitate to bite.


Black Pine Snake care is fairly straightforward, and follows that of rat snakes and other Colubrids.  Please write in for further information, or see Black Rat Snake Care and Natural History for husbandry guidelines.

Captive born specimens are usually calm, although the few I have worked with were a bit high strung.  Being largely fossorial in the wild, they are ill at ease if forced to remain in the open.  Even long term captives spend a good deal of their time within shelters.

Further Reading

You can read about conservation efforts for Black Pine Snakes in Alabama here.


Reptile Awareness Day – Lend Your Favorite Creatures a Helping Hand!

Our favorite animals’ own holiday, Reptile Awareness Day (RAD), will soon be upon us. On Wednesday, October 21st, herp enthusiasts can participate by doing something special for reptiles – educate someone about reptiles, clean up a reptile habitat, do something special for your pet, make a donation to a conservation organization…the possibilities are endless.

The Bronx River as Herp Habitat?

I’ve been involved in a few such endeavors over the years. One of the most gratifying was in conjunction with Bronx River Restoration. Neighborhood children were recruited to help remove debris that had accumulated along that part of the Bronx River that passes through the Bronx Zoo. A surprising array of reptiles and amphibians (i.e. snapping, painted and musk turtles, green and bull frogs, dusky salamanders) live along the river, but they need a hand on occasion.

We also trimmed overgrown banks to let in sunlight and improve basking opportunities for resident Eastern painted turtles and added tree stumps to the shallows. On return visits to the river, the children were happy to see both turtles and water snakes utilizing the new basking spots.

Water Snakes in NYC

Another surprisingly effective project that I enjoyed was the reintroduction of northern water snakes to the banks of the Bronx River and nearby ponds. Working on conjunction with several wildlife agencies, I collected water snakes from approved areas and released several gravid females. I also held back a few animals for captive breeding, and released the young (1 huge female gave birth to 89 live young, a near record!).

I’m delighted to report that the water snakes are breeding in their new habitat. If this can be accomplished in the center of the country’s most densely populated city, just imagine the potential that exists elsewhere!

Please Note: Reintroduction programs must be carefully researched and approved by your state Fish and Wildlife Agency.

Have Fun, Help Reptiles and Win Prizes!

Forgotten Friend Reptile Sanctuary, a reptile rescue and education organization located in Elizabethtown, PA, is sponsoring a contest in support of Reptile Awareness Day (RAD). So lending a hand to reptiles will not only feel good…it may just earn you some great prizes as well (Including a $50 gift card from That Fish Place/That Pet Place)!

To enter, simply post a note describing your “reptile friendly” good deed on Forgotten Friend’s site.

Radio Broadcasts

Anyone in the Central Pennsylvania area should be sure to tune in to the morning shows at FM 97 or WJTL FM 90.3 on October 21st – Forgotten Friend Reptile Sanctuary representatives will discuss their important work and suggest ways that we can help to make the world a better place for our reptile friends.

Amphibian Awareness Day?

We don’t have an Amphibian Awareness Day yet, but please don’t forget that frogs, salamanders and caecilians also need a hand. As you can see from the photo, even the youngest herpetologists among us can express real tenderness towards small creatures (the sturdy little fellow pictured here usually goes through life like a bulldozer!). Children are the conservationists of the future – include them in your hobby if at all possible.


Interesting Facts and the Care of the Senegal Chameleon

Today we’ll take another look at those oddest of lizards, the chameleons (Family Chamaeleonidae), followed by some tips on the care of the Senegal Chameleon (Chamaeleo senegalensis).


The cone shaped torrents that enclose the chameleon’s eyes are actually made up of fused, overlapping sets of eye lids.  By covering all but the eye’s pupil, they offer excellent protection to this most important organ.

Chameleon eyes contain far more visual cells than do our own, and can be rotated 180 degrees.  Uniquely among all animals, the eyes can focus either independently (on different objects) or together.

Vision, Learning and Hunting Accuracy

When a chameleon focuses both eyes on an insect, it hits its target 9 out of 10 times.  In laboratory situations, accuracy falls to 0 when 1 eye is covered.  However, by the second day hunting accuracy rises to 20%.  On day 4, the one-eyed hunters successfully capture insects on 50% of their attempts.

Senses of Hearing and Smell

Chameleons do not hear well …like snakes, they detect air vibrations and low-pitched sounds only.

The Jacobsen’s organ, which allows many other reptiles to “smell” chemical particles in the air, is vestigial (much reduced) in chameleons.  It is therefore assumed that they do not detect most odors.


Madagascar is the center of chameleon diversity, with over 75 species, many endemic, living there.  Neighboring Africa, despite being vastly larger, boasts only 100 or so species.  Only 2 species make their homes in the Middle East, 2 in Europe and 2 in India and Sri Lanka.

At least 2 species of chameleon have established feral populations in foreign habitats.  The veiled chameleon (Chamaeleo calyptratus) thrives in Florida, Hawaii and Mexico, while the Jackson’s chameleon (C. jacksonii) has been breeding on Hawaii since the 1970’s and has recently been discovered in California.

The Senegal Chameleon, Chamaeleo senegalensis

Hailing from tropical West Africa (Senegal to Cameroon), this dark-spotted, tan to olive chameleon inhabits brushy savannas and forest edges.  Often abundant and easy to collect, it has long been a pet trade staple.

Some Cautions

Despite its long history in captivity, the Senegal does not breed regularly, and presents some problems as a pet.  Wild caught specimens should be avoided, as they are usually heavily parasitized and afflicted with stress related ailments.

Captive Environment

Senegal Chameleons need quite, heavily planted screen cages or an outdoor aviary , abundant UVB radiation and should be kept well-hydrated via frequent spraying or the use of a mister.  An ambient temperature of 76F with a basking site of 85F and a nighttime dip to 69-70F suits them well.


If you are lucky enough to obtain a breeding pair, you’ll have your hands full…healthy females may lay 20-70 eggs at a time, twice each year!  Incubation time averages 6 months at 77 F, and sexual maturity may be reached by 5 months of age.

The Smooth Chameleon

The range of East Africa’s Smooth Chameleon overlaps that of the Senegal in Cameroon.  Formerly classified as a subspecies, the smooth chameleon has now been given full species status as Chamaeleo laevigata.

Male Chameleon in Madagascar image referenced from wikipedia and originally posted by Mbz1
Veiled Chameleon in Madagascar image referenced from wikipedia and originally posted by Billybizkit

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