My Experiences with Snake Necked Turtles in Zoos and at Home

Giant Snake Necked Turtle

Uploaded to Wikipedia Commons by Sam Fraser-Smith

Among the Snake Necked Turtles of the family Chelidae we find some of the world’s most unique and effective reptilian predators. I’ve had the good fortune of knowing many, including a few that were newly-described; all have been fascinating to keep. From the massive Giant Snake Neck (Chelodina expansa), which snatches fish with blinding speed, to the bizarre Mata Mata (Chelus fimbriatus), which sucks them down like a vacuum cleaner, all have their surprises and secrets. While many are suited only for experienced keepers with room to spare, others are quite hardy and suitable for most serious turtle enthusiasts.

 

Classification

The world’s 56 Snake Necked Turtles are classified in the family Chelidae. Their trademark necks, which are snake-like in both length and striking speed, render the family unique among all the world’s turtles.

 

WITH LARGE MATA MATADescription

Snake Necked Turtles range from 6 to over 20 inches in length. Those with the most impressively-long necks are found in the genus Chelodina. Most of those native to Australia, New Guinea and Indonesia are strong swimmers with streamlined carapaces and fully-webbed feet. Others, such as the New Guinea Snapping Turtle (Elseya novaeguineae) have shorter (but still long!) necks and somewhat domed shells. All withdraw the neck into the shell on a sideways angle rather than straight back, as is typical for “regular” turtles.

 

The South American members of the family vary greatly in appearance, and do not have the outlandishly-long necks typical of their Australasian cousins. One of these, the Mata Mata (Chelus fimbriatus), is perhaps the world’s most unusual turtle. The broad flattened head of this aquatic creature, adorned with skin tubercles and flaps, and bearing a long, pointed snout, does not appear to belong to a turtle…or to any animal for that matter!

Neck withdrawn (New Guinea Snapping Turtle)The skin flaps may attract fish, which are sucked into the huge mouth when the throat distends, creating a vacuum-like action. Those I’ve kept (please see photo) have also accepted tadpoles, shrimp and other aquatic invertebrates. Ranging from Venezuela and Surinam to Columbia, eastern Peru and northern Brazil, this black water river denizen commands high prices in the pet trade, and is best reserved for well-experienced keepers.

 

Range

Snake Necked Turtles are found in Australia, New Guinea, Indonesia and South America. With the exception of the equally-unusual Fly River Turtle, they are the only freshwater turtles native to Australia and New Guinea.

 

Habitat

Most Australasian species spend the majority of their lives in water, emerging only to bask or deposit eggs. South American representatives vary in their habits – the Mata Mata Turtle is completely aquatic but others, such as the Twist Necked Turtle (Platemys platycephala), spend some time on land.

 

Depending upon the species, fast-moving rivers, swamps, lakes, flooded grasslands, tidal streams and other aquatic habitats are occupied.

 

Twist necked Turtle

Uploaded to Wikipedia Commons by http://www.birdphotos.com

Care and Feeding

Snake Necked Turtles are highly carnivorous, although some add fallen fruit and aquatic plants to the diet. Those with very elongated necks, such as the Giant Snake Necked Turtle (Chelodina expansa), strike at swimming fish with lightning speed, and rarely miss. In my experience, only the Common Snapping Turtle and some of the Softshells (most notably the huge Narrow-Headed Softshell, Chitra indica), can equal their amazing striking speed; none snare fish so efficiently.

 

Fish are favored by most, but tadpoles, crayfish, snails, carrion, worms, and insects are also taken; larger species occasionally add small lizards, frogs, snakes, and mammals to the diet.

 

Pet Snake Necks fare best on a diet comprised largely of whole organisms such as earthworms, occasional pre-killed pink mice, crayfish and fresh water minnows and shiners. A steady diet of goldfish has been linked to several health concerns among Mata Mata Turtles, so in zoos we avoid or strictly limit their use in general.   Super mealworms, roaches, crickets and other insects can be used to vary the diet. Many refuse dry turtle foods, at least initially, but the products sold by Zoo Med and other well-respected companies are worth experimentation.

 

The calcium requirements of all species are likely quite high, with whole freshwater fishes being the most important source of this mineral. Some have done well without UVB exposure, but most successful private and professional keepers provide access to a UVB bulb.

 

All Australasian and most South American species are sizable, active turtles that require spacious aquariums equipped with sturdy basking sites, heaters and powerful filtration. While a 55 gallon aquarium might suit the smallest Snake Necks, larger species need tanks of several hundred gallon capacity, or commercial turtle tubs and ponds.

Temperatures should range from 72-80 F, with a basking site of 85-95 F, but the requirements of each species vary somewhat. Please post below for detailed information on the individual turtles in which you are interested.

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

Reptile Aquariums and the Nitrogen Cycle

Nest Sites for Captive Turtles

Endangered Species Notes: Missing Frogs Found, Others Feared Extinct

Indian Dancing Frog

Uploaded to Wikipedia Commons by SathyabhamaDasBiju

In 2010, 33 teams of researchers set out across 21 countries to search for the hundreds of amphibian species that may have been driven to extinction in recent years. A “100 Most Wanted” and a “10 Ten” list was compiled, and the public’s help was sought. Now, 4 years later, we have both discouraging and promising news, with some lost species “resurrected”, several new ones described, and no sign at all of many.

 

I’ve written about the global amphibian decline, spurred by an emerging disease (Chytrid fungus outbreak), habitat loss, and other factors, in several articles (please see Further Reading, below). The current search for survivors is also covered in the recently-published book In Search of Lost Frogs. Today I’d like to summarize recent reports from the field. Most of the good and bad news centers on frogs…the status of many salamanders, which are less well-studied and harder to find, remains unknown.

 

Painted Hula Frog

Uploaded to Wikipedia Commons by Mickey Samuni-Blank

Down But Not Out

To start off on a positive note, I was happy to learn that 6 frog species that had not been seen in over 20 years were found in a single week of searching on Haiti! Hopefully, surveys of other habitats that have been studied in recent years will turn out as well.

 

Several species on the “Most Wanted List”, all feared extinct, have also been found. Included among these are:

 

Ecuador’s Rio Pescado Stubfoot Toad, formerly known only from drawings.

The Borneo Rainbow Toad, which had not been seen in 87 years.

Israel’s Hula Painted Frog, which was pushed to near-extinction by marsh drainage and introduced fish.

Newly-Discovered Species

Happily, a number of species new to science turned up during the worldwide search, and in conjunction with related efforts. While many are tiny and are noted only by frog enthusiasts, several have, for various reasons, also aroused some public interest:

Named due to its (perceived!) resemblance to a character on The Simpsons TV show, the Monty Burns Toad had been hidden away in Columbia. Another surprise, a neon-orange Dart Poison Frog found in Panama, measures only 12.7 mm in length – the smallest among a huge array of tiny relatives.

Display of male Dancing Frog

Uploaded to Wikipedia Commons by SathyabhamaDasBiju

My favorites are the 14 species of Dancing Frogs recently found in India’s forests. Because they live near rushing streams that would drown out mating calls, the tiny males have evolved an alternative way of attracting mates. True to their name, they whip their rear legs about in a variety of “dance-like” moves (please see photo).

 

Still Missing

Unfortunately, many species remain undetected. Some, such as the Mesopotamic Beaked Toad, have not been found despite extensive surveys. Others that are hopefully skilled at avoiding herpetologists rather than gone forever include:

 

Olm

Uploaded to Wikipedia Commons by Arne Hodalič

Fantastically colored in greenish-yellow and jet black, the bromeliad-dwelling Jackson’s Climbing Salamander has not been observed in its native Guatemala since 1975.

 

Turkestanian Salamander: Known only from two specimens collected in Kyrgyzstan, Uzbekistan or Tajikistan, this salamander has not been seen since its discovery in 1909.

 

Golden Toad: This brilliantly colored Costa Rican native, despite inhabiting isolated, pristine cloud forests, has been missing since 1989.

 

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

Public Help Needed in Amphibian Search

Rare but Unprotected US Amphibians

US Reptiles and Amphibians Need Hobbyist’s Help

Rainbow Snake Care: Keeping a Colorful but Difficult Aquatic Snake

Rainbow Snake

Uploaded to Wikipedia Commons by Alan Garrett

Once seen, the beautiful and aptly named Rainbow Snake (Farancia erytrogramma erytrogramma) is not easily forgotten. Yet it remains relatively unknown in the pet trade, principally because of its odd dietary requirements. However, some enterprising snake enthusiasts have found ways to surmount these difficulties, and there have even been a few breeding successes. In my opinion, these unique US natives deserve much more attention, and have great potential as fascinating additions to the collections of experienced snake keepers.

 

Description

Rainbow Snakes average 3 to 4 feet in length, with a record of 5 feet, 6 inches. Even after a lifetime of snake-keeping, the first I saw stopped me in my tracks. Vivid red and yellow stripes line the blue-black body, while the underside is orange to red in color.   Smooth, glossy scales add to the brilliance of these colors. The tail’s terminal scale is hard and somewhat sharp, leading some to mistakenly believe that the Rainbow Snake can “sting” its enemies.

 

Mud Snake

Uploaded to Wikipedia Commons by John Sullivan

Its closest relative appears to be the Mud Snake, F. abacura (please see photo). Similar in appearance and habits, the Mud Snake is also largely ignored by hobbyists and zoos.

 

Range

Known in some locales as the Eel Moccasin, the Rainbow Snake may be found from southern Maryland to eastern Louisiana and central Florida.

 

A subspecies, the Seminole or South Florida Rainbow Snake (Farancia e. seminola), is limited in range to Lake Okeechobee in Florida. It is known from only 3 specimens, and has not been seen since 1952. Some fear that the Seminole Rainbow Snake is extinct, but I hold out hope that its secretive habits (and lack of interest!) are responsible for the lack of recent sightings.

 

Rainbow Snake habitat

Uploaded to Wikipedia Commons by Kej605

Habitat

These largely-aquatic snakes favor cypress swamps, marshes, oxbow lakes and other sluggish bodies of water, but sometimes forage in nearby fields. Much of its time is spent among floating vegetation or, when on land, within shallow burrows.

 

Terrarium

An average-sized adult Rainbow Snake can be kept in a 55 – 75 gallon aquarium. They are not comfortable unless able to burrow, so cypress mulch, eucalyptus bark and similar materials should be used as substrates. Despite their aquatic tendencies, Rainbow Snakes may develop fungal skin disorders if unable to dry off; we see this in North America’s watersnakes (Nerodia spp.) as well. The substrate may be kept slightly moist, but dry surfaces (i.e. bark slabs) must be available.

 

A large water bowl, filled to a point where it will not overflow when the snake enters, will suit their needs. If the snake seems ill-at-ease, floating plastic plants should be placed in the water so that it can shelter below.

An ambient temperature of 75-80 F and a basking temperature of 85-88 F should be established.

 

Diet

Wild Rainbow Snakes seem to feed almost exclusively upon American Eels.   Other fishes, and aquatic salamanders such as amphiumas and sirens, may also be taken (as is the case for the related Mud Snake), but field research is lacking.

 

Most adult captives refuse all food except American eels. However, scenting minnows, shiners and other fishes with eels has resulted in acceptance. Another option is to search for small eels at bait stores; adult eels can be purchased at food markets and frozen until needed for scenting or use as a meal.

 

Young American Eels

Uploaded to Wikipedia Commons by Uwe Kils

Young Rainbow Snakes are easier to please than adults, and generally accept minnows, shiners, and a variety of other small freshwater fishes. Tadpoles are said to be the preferred food of smaller individuals in the wild; frogs and salamanders are also consumed.

 

General Care

In common with other fish-eaters, Rainbow Snakes produce copious, watery waste products and require more upkeep than similarly-sized rodent-eating snakes. As nearly all individuals encountered in the trade are wild-caught, new arrivals should be seen by a veterinarian.

 

Breeding

Captive breeding is rare, although this seems due more to a lack of interest than any inherent difficulties. A slight drop in temperature (68 F by night, 72-80 F by day) may stimulate breeding. Pairs must be monitored carefully, as biting may occur during courtship.

 

Rainbow Snakes produce unusually large clutches, which range in size from 20 to over 50 eggs. As the eggs are deposited below cover or within shallow burrows, a large nesting box should be provided to gravid females. Hatchlings measure 8 ½ – 11 inches in length.

 

Temperament

Rainbow Snakes are rather inoffensive, although like all snakes they may bite and should be handled with care. Their first line of defense is usually to thrash about while pressing the hard, terminal scale of the tail against one’s flesh. This can do no harm, but folks who are unprepared may drop the snake in response. This defense mechanism has resulted in their being dubbed “stinging snakes” in some regions.

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

 

Watersnake Care

 

Tentacled Snake Care

 

Corn Snake or Ball Python? Choosing the Best Snake Pet

Corn Snakes and Ball Pythons are close competitors for the title of the world’s most popular snake pet. Among the first species to be commercially bred in huge numbers, either makes an excellent choice for most snake owners, new or experienced.  I’ve kept hundreds of species during my long career as a zookeeper, but a Corn Snake terrarium occupies center stage in my living room!  In the following article I’ll compare the care needs of Corn Snakes and Ball Pythons, so that you’ll be able to plan ahead and maximize your pet-keeping experience and your new snake’s quality of life. Detailed care information is provided in the articles linked under “Further Reading”; as always, please also post any questions or observations you may have, and let me know which species gets your vote.

 

snakeHandle-ability

Although individual personalities vary, both adapt well to gentle handling and are not stressed by human contact. Corn Snakes are more likely to move about when being handled, compared to Ball Pythons, but this is offset by their lighter body weight.  As with any snake, care and adult supervision must be exercised, and the animal’s head should never be allowed near one’s face.

 

Folks who want a “big snake in a small package” generally prefer Ball Pythons. Thick-bodied and muscular, they can average 4 feet in length, but their girth would greatly exceed that of a similarly-sized Corn Snake.

 

Activity Levels

Neither is overly active, but Corn Snakes regularly move between basking sites and shelters, and are more likely to wander about the cage when hungry.

 

Ball Pythons, native to harsh habitats, are extremely efficient at conserving energy and tend to move only when necessary.

 

Young Corn Snke

Uploaded to Wikipedia Commons by Invertzoo

Life Span

A Ball Python at the Philadelphia Zoo lived for a record 47.6 years, and there are anecdotal reports of a 51 year-old individual. Pets regularly survive into their 30’s.

 

The published longevity for a Corn Snake is 32 years, and many can approach and exceed age 20.

 

Breeding Potential

Both species breed reliably, and make an excellent introduction to that fascinating aspect of reptile-keeping. Each species is available in a wide variety of interesting (and even bizarre!) color morphs…at least 25 in the case of the Corn Snake. Corn Snake hybrids with King, Gopher and various Rat Snakes have also been produced. Please see the articles linked below for detailed breeding information.

 

Ball python

Uploaded to Wikipedia Commons by Izzysworldofherps

Cost

The purchase price for a normally-colored individual is similar for both snakes. Prices increase for rare or unusual color morphs. This is especially true for Ball Pythons. Expenses for terrariums, supplies and electricity are similar:

 

Terrarium Size (single adult)

Corn Snake: 20-55 gallon

Ball Python: 30-55 gallon

 

Temperature

Corn Snake: 75-82 F, with a basking site of 90 F

Ball Python: 80-85 F, with a basking site of 90 F

 

Corn snake eatng pinkie

Uploaded to Wikipedia Commons by Dustin Miller

Diet

Food intake will vary among individuals and in tune with temperature, season, life cycle stage, and other factors. While Ball pythons are much heavier than Corn Snakes and take larger meals, their habit of fasting tends to even-out food cost differences.

 

Ball Pythons have evolved to survive in habitats where food may be plentiful for short periods and scarce or absent at other times. Consequently, they seem predisposed to feed heavily and then to fast for weeks or even months. This can happen at any time of the year, and may be tied to circadian, or internal, rhythms. Long fasting periods may be very disconcerting to novice owners; if you prefer a regular feeder, choose a Corn Snake. Feeding preferences can change as well, with a formerly favored food, such as mice, being rejected for no apparent reason (well, none that we can discern…the snakes “know” why they do it!). When in a feed cycle, adult Ball Pythons will take 2-3 mice or 1 small rat each 10-14 days; individual intake will vary greatly, however. Please see the article linked below for more on this topic.

 

Corn Snakes in good health are almost always reliable feeders. Depending upon the size of the snake, they do well on 1-2 small to medium sized mice each 7-10 days.

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

Corn Snake Care

Ball Python Care

 

 

Pet Toads: Best Choices for Kids or First Time Pet Owners

American toad

Uploaded to Wikipedia Commons by Bnski

I’ve kept toads at home and in zoos for over 50 years, yet I remain enamored of even the most common local species. Others of my generation, be they herpetologists or hobbyists, feel the same…it’s hard to dislike a toad!   As pets, toads are generally far more responsive and “aware” than are their frog cousins, and with proper care they may live into their 30’s and beyond. Perhaps because they “know” of the protection offered by powerful skin toxins, pets become quite bold, and readily feed from the hand…sounds odd, but their fearless attitudes remind me of another favorite but very different pet – the striped skunk! To date, 578 species of toads have been described (family Bufonidae), so I’m guessing that many readers will have their own “best pet” picks. Please be sure to post your choices below.

 

The American Toad and its Relatives

Each year, American Toads and several related species introduce scores of children to amphibian keeping. I can think of no better toad – or indeed amphibian – pet. Hardy enough for rank beginners, these stout little fellows also hold the attentions of experienced zookeepers – in fact, very few have ever been bred in captivity!

 

Southern toad

Uploaded to Wikipedia Commons by Fice

Twenty-one similar species are classified with the American Toad in the genus Anaxyrus (formerly Bufo). Most are equally hardy and well suited to captivity, although the tiny Oak Toad (A. quercicus) may present some feeding difficulties due to the size of the insects required. Other good choices for the terrarium include Houston, Southern, Fowler’s and Great Plains Toads. Owners invariably describe each using words such as “charming”, “droll”, “friendly” and “engaging”. All are sometimes active by day in the wild; captives quickly adjust to their owners’ schedules, and will emerge from their shelters by day and night if a meal is in the offing.

 

Care

I’ve covered the care of American Toads and several other species in the articles linked below. Please also post any question you may have.

 

Just a quick note on hygiene and diet, which are the two aspects of care that most often give rise to problems (read more in the linked articles):

 

Black Toad

Uploaded to Wikipedia Commons by Strageser

Toads have porous skin patches on the chest through which ammonia (released with their waste products) will be absorbed. As ammonia is extremely lethal, strict attention must be paid to terrarium and water cleanliness. Chlorine and chloramine must be removed from water used in toad terrariums. Liquid preparations are simple to use and very effective.

 

A highly-varied diet is essential. Crickets and mealworms alone, even if powdered with supplements, are not an adequate diet for any species. I have observed wild Marine Toads consuming over 2 dozen insect species in a very short time, and other researchers have documented a wider range of prey for other species. Pets should be offered crickets, earthworms (one of the best foods) roaches, sow bugs, waxworms, butterworms, silkworms, lab-reared houseflies, termites, flour beetle grubs, and wild-caught invertebrates (please see cautions in linked articles) such as aphids, “meadow plankton”, harvestmen, earwigs, ground beetles, grasshoppers, and moths.

 

Mexican Burrowing Toad

Uploaded to Wikipedia Commons by Pstevendactylus

Expanding Your Collection

Once you have some experience with the American Toad and its relatives, you may wish to branch out into some of the less-commonly kept (in some cases very rarely kept!) toads. You have nearly 600 species to choose from, and some really break the “typical family mold” set by the American Toad. Spray Toads (not available in the trade) bear tiny live toadlets while Argentine Flame-Bellied Toads are as brilliant as any Dart Poison Frog. Huge lumbering Marine, Blomberg’s and Smooth-Sided Toads rival Horned Frogs in size, while the rarely-seen Mexican Burrowing Toad looks like some sort of amphibian space alien.

 

US toad fanciers are fortunate to have 35-40 species resident, many of which are overlooked by zoos and hobbyists alike. Some of my favorite US natives include the Narrow-Mouthed, Red-Spotted, Spadefoot, Sonoran Green and Marine Toads.

 

Handling

Toads learn very quickly where their meals lie, and will soon greet you as you approach their terrarium. They will even clamber up onto your hand to feed, but should not be held unnecessarily, or “petted”. In common with all amphibians, they are subject health problems once the skin’s mucus covering is removed. Handle them – carefully, and with clean, wet hands – only when necessary.

 

While toads make excellent pets for responsible children supervised by adults, they do secrete virulent skin toxins and must be treated with care. Always wash thoroughly after handling them, and never touch your mouth or eyes before doing so. Do not handle toads if you have a cut in your skin. Toads that are licked or swallowed by children or mammalian pets can cause life-threatening reactions.

 

All amphibians should be assumed to carry Salmonella. Infections are easy to avoid if proper hygiene measures are followed. Please see the CDC website and speak with your family doctor if you require further information.

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

 

American Toad Care and Natural History

 

Care of Common and Unusual Toads

 

Salmonella Prevention

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