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Titanoboa cerrejonensis, the World’s Largest Snake: Extinct Anaconda-Like Serpent Believed to Have Reached 43 Feet in Length and 2,500 Pounds in Weight


Well, the name says it all – Titanoboa!

Snake-oriented web sites will be alive this week with news of the discovery of fossils belonging to a snake of unprecedented size.  Writing in the journal Nature, researchers from the Smithsonian Institute and the University of Florida note that Titanoboa was larger than the contrived serpent that “tries to eat Jennifer Lopez in the movie Anaconda” (Ms. Lopez and company appeared at the Bronx Zoo when that movie was in progress, seeking technical advice.  I was a reptile keeper at the time, but, sadly for me, the powers that be declined to become involved!).

Colombia‘s Anacondas…now and then

An artist’s rendition of the huge beast casts it much like a very large anaconda.  Indeed, the giant is believed to have kept to Colombia’s marshy areas, home to modern-day anacondas.  Titanoboa roamed Colombia during the Paleocene Epoch, just after the extinction of the dinosaurs (approximately 65 million years ago).

Chasing Today’s Giants

There is only one reasonably reliable account of a modern-day snake measuring over 30 feet in length.  A reward offered by the Bronx Zoo for another stood uncollected for nearly 100 years.

I’ve done my level best to find a record breaking anaconda, and I like to think that she is out there somewhere.  The largest anaconda that I came up with was just over 17 feet long and weighed in at 215 pounds – no Titanoboa, but then again not an easy animal to wrest from the muck of a Venezuelan swamp either.  For the full story and some photos of myself and others with that snake, please see my article Hunting Anacondas in the Venezuelan Llanos.


Spitting Cobras (Family Elapidae, Genus Naja): New Research and Personal Encounters


A recent article (Jan. 2009) in Physiological and Biochemical Zoology has shed light on why spitting cobras nearly always hit the eyes of whatever creature they are aiming for, be it secretary bird (a predator), gnu (a trample hazard) or person.

Perfect Aim Not Needed

Utilizing high speed photography and EMG tests, researchers established that the snakes contract their head and neck muscles just before ejecting venom.  The contractions rotate the head and jerk it sharply from side to side, so that the venom forms a complex geometric spray pattern as it approaches its target.  As long as aimed in the general direction of the face, the venom contacts the adversary’s eyes nearly 100% of the time.

Keeping Zookeepers on Their Toes

I have worked closely with several types of spitting cobras.  Like many Elapids (cobras and their relatives), they are alert and quick-moving, and seem, at least on the surface, to be quite intelligent.  These traits, combined with their ability to both bite and “spit”, renders them quite a handful in captivity, and they provide much fodder for zookeepers’ tales.

Perhaps He Thought They Needed Exercise?

In one very bizarre incident from my Bronx Zoo days, a visitor held his son up so that the child could kick in the glass of an exhibit housing 3 black-necked spitting cobras (Naja nigricollis)!  As might be expected, the breaking glass caused a great deal of agitation to both the snakes and some of the other visitors…I say “some of” because nearly as many people were pushing towards the exhibit as were running away (those wacky New Yorkers!).  Fortunately, all emerged unscathed, and the snakes were recovered quickly.

Cobra Hunting to Start the Day

Another zoo adventure began when, still bleary-eyed after a few mugs of espresso very early one spring morning, I discovered that 3 red spitting cobras (Naja pallida) had vacated their holding cage overnight.  The ancient plastic goggles I used around spitters were fine for exhibit work, but rendered me nearly blind in the dim, cluttered recesses of the reptile house’s basement and storage areas.  Lifting the goggles briefly to peek under something was terrifying, but so was leaving them on and seeing only unidentifiable shadows.

One colleague, goggles perched on his forehead, spied a snake and grabbed it with tongs, neglecting to lower the goggles in the excitement.  Fortunately, the trapped serpent vented its wrath by biting the tongs, and not by spitting at my partner’s face!  After a few sweaty, suspense-filled hours, all 3 snakes were re-captured…whereupon I ordered new goggles!

I’ve also had run-ins with the spitting cobra’s much larger relative, the king cobra…please see my article A Close Call With a King Cobra http://blogs.thatpetplace.com/thatreptileblog/2008/06/ for more cobra tales.

Image referenced from Wikipedia, first published by LA Dawson, and shared under the Creative Commons Share Alike-2.5 License.


Reptile and Amphibian Conservation: Volunteer Opportunities Involving Field Research


The Partnership for Amphibian and Reptile Conservation (http://www.parcplace.org/) presents a unique opportunity for hobbyists and others to work in the company of professional herpetologists.  The organization is unique and, in my opinion, far-sighted, in focusing on common as well as rare amphibians and reptiles.  Membership is open to all interested persons.

Working groups are established to address species native to each of 6 geographic regions in the USA, as well as in Canada and Mexico, and volunteers are always welcomed.  Current initiatives range from monitoring smooth green snake populations to assessing vernal pond habitats.

Frog and salamander enthusiasts can participate in the National Wildlife Federation’s “Project Frogwatch” (www.nwf.org/frogwatchUSA) or the North American Amphibian Monitoring Program (www.pwrc.usgs.gov/naamp).  Amphibian deformities, an increasingly common concern, can be reported at www.nbii.gov/portal/server.pt.

State wildlife agencies often support volunteer-based conservation initiatives.  Links to the individual agencies (they all have different names) of each state may be found at http://www.fishwildlife.org/ or on the PARK website noted above.


Medications Based on the Immune System of the Mealworm or Darkling Beetle (Tenebrio molitor) may someday prevent the Emergence of Drug Resistant Microbes – Research Update


Mealworm BeetleThe mealworm has long been valued by pet keepers, but medical researchers are now giving it some respect as well.  A recent (December, 2008) article in the journal Science reveals that antimicrobial peptides manufactured by the mealworm beetle destroy any bacteria that happen to survive the original onslaught launched by the beetle’s immune system.


This is important because bacteria and other microbes that are not killed by drugs or immune system defenses often evolve into resistant strains, which are then very difficult to control.  This is currently a very serious human health concern, especially as regards hospital-based micro-organisms.


It seems that insects are particularly effective at preventing the development of hard-to-kill microbes, and that most of the credit for this is due a unique group of chemicals known as antimicrobial peptides.  It is hoped that human medications modeled after these peptides may serve to limit the emergence of dangerous drug-resistant bacteria, fungi and other microbes.



Mealworms have a long history as important laboratory animals.  You can learn more by checking the forum at the following location:


Please also see my article on the proper use of mealworms as a pet food: Making the Most of the Mealworm: some tips on enhancing the nutritional value of this pet trade staple
Image referenced from Wikipedia and originally posted by http://www.entomart.be/

Conserving the Desert Tortoise (Gopherus agassizi): why good intentions must be paired with knowledge


The desert tortoise was at one time collected in huge numbers for the pet trade.  Unfortunately, most were not properly cared for, and survival rates were abysmal.  This, combined with massive habitat loss in the American Southwest, led all states within its range to adopt protective legislation, and to its listing with CITES and the IUCN.

Unwittingly Introducing Pathogens

Many people cooperated – releasing their pets or, through various organizations, rehabilitating injured tortoises and then turning them loose.  Unfortunately, a respiratory disease commonly afflicting captive tortoises took hold among wild populations, and more harm than good resulted from the rescue and release efforts.

Incomplete Habitat Protection

On a grander scale, the habitat protection granted the tortoises often failed to take into account a unique twist in the species’ life history.  In the northern portion of their range, desert tortoises migrate to hilly areas at the onset of cold weather and hibernate in communal burrows that are 15-35 feet in length.  These long-established burrows are essential to winter survival, as a burrow of suitable length (15+ feet) cannot be constructed by a single tortoise in one season.

Setting aside areas where the tortoises were observed to forage and nest was an admirable step, but ultimately fell short of what northern populations required.  The hibernation sites, often far-removed from foraging areas, were not always taken into consideration.

Both problems have largely been rectified, but only at the cost of lives and time.  The key point to be taken here is that we must all read, exchange information and observe…either of the above might have been identified by anyone who looked closely enough – pet keeper or field biologist alike.


A California Department of Fish and Game report on the desert tortoise’s  natural history is posted at:


Image referenced from Wikipedia Commons

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