New Species Found in 2014: Gymnastic Spiders and Other Invertebrates

I always advise young students intent on reaching fame to study invertebrates…uncounted millions remain to be discovered, even in such unlikely places as Manhattan’s Central Park (a centipede, in recent years). Almost every week, an exciting new insect, arachnid, crustacean, or other invertebrate is uncovered, and some of those found in 2014 have been especially surprising. Included among this year’s amazing finds are “living skeletons”, see-through snails, gymnastic spiders, and screaming-pink millipedes. Most have barely been studied, while others were found earleir but are only now being described in detail. The following discoveries represent just the tip of the “new species iceberg”…please be sure to post your own favorites below.

Pink Dragon Millipede

Uploaded to Wikipedia Commons by CHULABUSH KHATANCHAROEN

Shocking Pink Dragon Millipede, Desmoxytes puruposea

Unlike many of its relatives, this conspicuously-colored millipede shuns cover and is out and about by day. Discovered near Thailand’s Hup Pa Tard cavern, it is well-protected by spiny legs and an arsenal of cyanide-like gasses (these same gasses once gave me quite a scare: please see the article below). Several of its relatives are bright red in color.




Flic Flac Spider

Uploaded to Wikipedia Commons by Ingo Rechenberg

Moroccan Flic-Flac Spider, Cebrennus rechenbergi

This relative of the Huntsman Spiders is named after a move used during gymnastic routines. When attacked, it engages in a series of forward and backward flips and is thus able to travel at twice its normal running speed. I wonder if the odd movements do not serve to confuse predators as well. It is the only spider known to use this form of locomotion. A robot based on its movements is being developed for possible use in agriculture and ocean/space exploration.


The Flic-Flac Spider is known only from the sand dunes of Morocco’s Erg Chebbi Desert. Perhaps the difficulties inherent in moving across sand have contributed to the evolution of its unique escape style – other desert-adapted spiders and insects are able to roll away from danger.


Skeletons and Ghosts

Skeleton shrimp

Uploaded to Wikipedia Commons by Hans Hillewaert

Southern California’s Santa Catalina Island is best known for sunny weather and beautiful ocean views. But a cave within one of its offshore reefs was found to contain a ghoulish shrimp-like creature that looks very much like a living skeleton. Dubbed the Skeleton Shrimp (Liropus minisculus), this amphipod has a translucent exoskeleton that lends it an oddly bone-like appearance. Its otherworldliness is further enhanced by the “raptorial claws” – mantis-like forelimbs used to grasp prey and mates.


For millions of years, the Domed Land Snail (Zospeum tholussum) has gone about the business of living in an isolated cave system 3,000 feet below the ground in western Croatia. Eyeless, colorless and with a see-through shell, it moves only several centimeters each week. The existence of such a creature, described

by the few who have seen it as “ghostly”, cannot fail to make one wonder what else awaits discovery far beneath the earth’s surface.


Domed land snail

Uploaded to Wikipedia Commons by Alexander M. Weigand

Lightening Roach, Lucihormetica luckae

Although quite a few sea creatures glow in the dark, luminescence is rare among land dwellers. But the Lightening Roach, known from only a single specimen collected in Guatemala, has developed this ability to a remarkable degree. Entomologists theorize that this light-producing roach mimics a toxic, glowing click beetle found in the same area. Unfortunately, a volcanic eruption in this insect’s only known habitat has cast doubt on its continued existence. Other glowing roaches have also been found in recent years…none are well-studied, and all appear to be rare.



Further Reading

My Millipede Emergency

Bird-Eating Frog Discovered

New Reptiles Discovered: 2010

The 5 Best Reptiles and Amphibians to Choose as Holiday Gifts

While most herp enthusiasts would be thrilled with a live holiday gift, it’s important to think very carefully before you make a present of a reptile or amphibian. Difficult as it may be to believe, the recipient may not share your enthusiasm! Presenting a pet to someone who is unwilling or unable to provide proper care is unfair to both the person and the creature. This is especially true of children…you must speak with their parents beforehand, and explain all that is involved in caring for your intended gift. With these cautions in mind, let’s look at some reptiles and amphibians that are well suited for mature children and adults new to herp-keeping.


Please see the articles linked under Further Reading for detailed care information, and be sure to post any questions you may have below.


snakeCorn Snake, Pantherophis guttata

The Corn Snake is one of North America’s most beautifully-patterned reptiles, and the world’s most popular serpent pet.  Despite having crossed paths with hundreds of species during my career as a herpetologist, I reserve a special fondness for these undemanding beauties. Topping out at a manageable 2.5 to 4 feet in length, Corn Snakes are amenable to gentle handling and can be housed in a 20-55 gallon aquarium. A hide box, incandescent heat bulb, water bowl, and a pre-killed mouse (available, frozen, at pet stores) each 7-10 days completes their needs. Longevities in excess of 20 years are known, and captive breeding – which has resulted in over 25 unique color phases – is commonplace.


Chinese Fire Bellied Newts

Uploaded to Wikipedia Commons by Dobromila

Japanese and Chinese Fire-Bellied Newts, Cynops pyrrhogaster and C. orientalis

Fire-Bellied Newts have much to recommend them as pets. They are active by day and quickly lose any shyness about exhibiting a range of interesting behaviors. Average room temperatures suit them well, and a pair can be kept in a 5 gallon aquarium equipped with a simple filter. Reptomin and other commercial foods, with occasional feedings of live blackworms (sold as tropical fish food), can serve as the basis of their diet. Fire-Bellies often surprise their owners with eggs, offering an excellent introduction to amphibian breeding.  Note: all newts produce skin toxins that can be harmful, and for certain species fatal, if swallowed; children must be supervised.


Leopard gecko

Uploaded to Wikipedia Commons by Unibrow1994

Leopard Gecko, Eublepharis macularius

There’s good reason why this attractive little lizard is one of the world’s most desirable reptilian pets. Unlike Bearded Dragons and other popular lizards, the Leopard Gecko does not require access to UVB radiation. This simplifies care and reduces expenses. They are also slow-moving, calm in demeanor, and very amenable to handling…a big plus for children. Their dietary and space needs are quite modest, and a wide variety of inexpensive heat sources and other gecko-specific products are available. Although typically active by night, pets are always willing to eat during the day, and their nocturnal wanderings can be viewed with the aid of a red/black night bulb.


Musk turtle hatchling

Uploaded to Wikipedia Commons by Karlwj1985

Common Musk Turtle, Sternotherus odoratus and its Relatives

I always hesitate to recommend turtles as first-time pets. Most need a great deal of room, expensive life support equipment, and their care can be quite time consuming. One possible exception is the Common Musk Turtle and such relatives as the North American Mud Turtle. While not exactly “simple” to care for, they make excellent choices for someone set on turtle ownership. Maxing out at 5 inches or so, the Musk Turtle can be accommodated in a 20 gallon aquarium equipped with an easy-to-clean filter. It differs from most turtles in not requiring UVB exposure, and a fish tank heater will meet its modest temperature requirements. A diet of high quality turtle pellets, supplemented with minnows, earthworms and other easily-obtainable foods, will keep them in great health long-term – as attested to by the 45 year-old female that is watching me as I type!


African clawed frogs and eggs

Uploaded to Wikipedia Commons by Shields R

African Clawed Frog, Xenopus laevis

Several African Clawed Frogs in my collection have lived into their mid-20’s, and all have been most amusing. Bold and brassy, these aquatic frogs quickly learn to “beg” for food, and readily feed from the hand. They do fine at temperatures ranging from 55-90 F, and, unlike almost all other frogs, accept non-living foods such as reptile and fish pellets (occasional insects are also appreciated). A simple filter and weekly partial water changes are essential to their health…provided that, African Clawed Frogs will prove to be among the hardiest of all amphibian pets.




Further Reading

Fire Bellied Newts as Pets


Leopard Gecko Care


Musk Turtle Care


Keeping Corn Snakes and other Ratsnakes


The Care and Breeding of African Clawed Frogs

Sailfin Dragon Care and Conservation: a Zookeeper’s Notes

H. pustulatus

Uploaded to Wikipedia Commons by MKFI

Sailfin Dragons (4 species in the genus Hydrosaurus) are among the most spectacular of all the world’s lizards. Even after a lifetime of working with reptiles in zoos and the field, the sight of one stops me cold – and I know of no herp enthusiast who reacts otherwise. While certainly not suitable for beginners, the experienced keeper with ample space will be hard pressed to find a more exciting prospect. And with a new species recently described, and wild populations of others in jeopardy, serious attention to captive breeding is urgently needed.


Description and Natural History

The Philippine Sailfin Lizard, Hydrosaurus pustulatus, was the species most commonly seen in the pet trade until the mid-1990’s, when exports were restricted. Stoutly built and sometimes nearing 4 feet in length, males are clad in green, neon purple, and reddish blue, and bear huge crests along the back and tail. DNA studies of individuals in Manila animal markets revealed that 2 genetically-distinct species are currently classified as H. pustulatus. The newly-described species has not yet been named. Please see the article linked below for further information.


Sailfin habitat

Uploaded to Wikipedia Commons by Ramon FVelasquez

The Amboina Sailfin, H. amboinensis, native to Indonesia and New Guinea, now often appears in pet markets in the Philippines. Weber’s Sailfin Lizard, H. weberi, is limited in distribution to the Indonesian islands of Ternate and Halmahera.


Sailfin Dragons are found near water, frequenting forested river edges, swamps, and coastal marshes.



Sailfin Dragons are alert and somewhat high-strung. Pets will flee from noises, cats, dogs, large birds and other threats. Injuries during such escape attempts are common. While some calm down and accept gentle handling, wild caught individuals may remain unapproachable for years.



Uploaded to Wikipedia Commons by Adrian Pingstone

Status in the Wild

A recent survey by University of Oklahoma herpetologists (Biological Conservation, V 169, Jan, 2014) revealed that only 10% of the Philippine Sailfin Dragon’s remaining habitat is protected. The rest is impacted by logging, coastal fisheries, illegal collection, and other activities.


The Terrarium

Sailfin Dragons forage on the ground but are otherwise arboreal. They will be stressed if kept in low enclosures that do not allow climbing opportunities.


Youngsters may be raised in 30-55 gallon aquariums. In common with Asian Water Dragons and Basilisks, they often run along the glass and are prone to snout and jaw abrasions. Cardboard or other solid borders along the lower 3-4 inches of the tank’s sides will help to limit such injuries.


Larger individuals must be housed in custom-made cages. A single adult will need a home measuring approximately 5 x 4 x 5 feet. More height – 6 feet or so – is ideal. In suitable climates, predator-proof outdoor enclosures, including pre-fabricated bird aviaries, can be fashioned into “luxury accommodations”.


H. amboinensis

Uploaded to Wikipedia Commons by Cburnett

Numerous wide, stout branches and shelves should be provided. Sturdy live plants (Pothos, Philodendron, Spider Plants) and/or artificial plants should be added to provide a sense of security. Wild Sailfin Dragons always live near heavy cover, and will be ill-at-ease in bare terrariums. One or two sides of the enclosure should be solid as opposed to screened, again to place the animals at ease (this is standard in zoo exhibit construction – many animals fare poorly when open to view from all directions). Never position rocks below branches, as startled individuals may jump to the floor and be injured.


A water bowl large enough for bathing must be provided. Custom built cages with filtered pools are ideal.



The substrate should be capable of holding moisture and soft enough to cushion falls when hungry or frightened Dragons leap to the ground. Cypress mulch is ideal; soft sphagnum moss can be added if falls are frequent. Avoid fine substrates such as peat and coconut husk, which tend to lodge around the eyes and jaws.



Sailfin Dragons will not thrive without a source of UVB radiation. Natural sunlight is best, but be aware that glass and plastic filter out UVB rays, and that fatal overheating can occur very quickly. If a florescent bulb is used (the Zoo Med 10.0 UVB Bulb is ideal), be sure that all animals can bask within 6-12 inches of it. Mercury vapor bulbs broadcast UVB over greater distances, and provide beneficial UVA radiation as well. A 12:12 hour day-night cycle should be maintained.



The ambient air temperature should range from 80-90 F, with a basking spot of 110-120 F; night-time temperatures can dip to 75 F.  Incandescent bulbs should be used to maintain these temperatures. Provide your pets with the largest enclosure possible, so that a varied temperature gradient can be maintained. A ceramic heater or red/black reptile “night bulb” can be used after dark.



Sailfin Dragons require humidity levels of approximately 80%, and the chance to dry off as well. The terrarium should be misted twice daily. Large bathing pools and reptile misters can be used to increase humidity.



Males are territorial and will fight savagely. Females often co-exist, but may also battle for dominance.



Uploaded to Wikipedia Commons by Thomas Seip


Sailfin Dragons need a varied diet. Those fed crickets and mealworms alone quickly develop serious developmental disorders. Whole vertebrates such as minnows, shiners, crayfish or small bait crabs, and pink mice represent the best means of meeting their high calcium requirements; use goldfishes only sparingly, as a steady diet has been implicated in health problems in other reptiles. Pink mice should be fed less often than fishes (once each 7-14 days), and furred rodents are best avoided.


Roaches, earthworms, crickets, butterworms, silkworms, super mealworms and other commercially-available insects, should be offered regularly. In order to increase dietary variety, try canned grasshoppers, snails and silkworms. Cicadas, beetles, grasshoppers, moths and other wild-caught insects should be provided as well; please see the article linked below for further information on safely collecting insects.


Young Sailfin Dragons are primarily carnivorous, but add greens and fruit to the diet as they mature. Captives, however, often reject non-living foods. Mixing live mealworms into a bowl of kale, dandelion, squash, carrot, mango, peaches and other produce may encourage them to sample the salad.


Depending upon the type of food, Sailfin Dragons can be fed daily, every-other-day or thrice weekly; young fare best when fed frequently. Food (other than vertebrates) should be powdered with Zoo Med ReptiCalcium or a similar product. Vitamin/mineral supplements such as ReptiVite should be used 2-3 times each week.


While ingested substrate is usually passed, food is best offered in bowls to limit potential problems.


Health Considerations (Pet Owner and Pet)

Salmonella bacteria, commonly present in reptile and amphibian digestive tracts, can cause severe illnesses in people. Handling an animal will not cause an infection, as the bacteria must be ingested. Salmonella infections are easy to avoid via the use of proper hygiene. Please speak with your family doctor concerning details, and feel free to write me for links to useful resources.


Unfortunately, captive breeding remains the exception rather than the rule. Wild-caught individuals will be afflicted with various parasites and should be seen by an experienced veterinarian shortly after acquisition.


Sailfin Dragons are prone to snout and jaw injuries that result from rubbing against glass and screening. Wounds may become infected, and should be treated immediately.


Fine/gritty substrate may lodge along the gums and in the eyes.




Further Reading

 New Sailfin Dragon Species Found in Pet Market

Feeding Insectivorous Lizards


Working with Spitting Cobras…and Getting Snake Venom in My Eyes!

Black-necked Spitting Cobra

Uploaded to Wikipedia Commons by Warren Klein

Working with Spitting Cobras has been a fascinating, if sometimes un-nerving, experience. In addition to being able to deliver venom via biting or ejection through the air, Spitting Cobras also have the alertness and speed that is typical of nearly all the world’s 353 Elapid species. On two occasions, I’ve had to re-capture a total of 6 escaped Red Spitting Cobras (Naja pallida) – once because a man helped his little son to kick in the glass of an exhibit at the Bronx Zoo! (please see article linked below) But despite these incidents, and decades of working closely with related species, the only venom to wind up in my eyes came not from a Spitter, but rather courtesy of a species that “cannot spit” – the Western Diamondback Rattlesnake (Crotalus atrox).



Illegal Rattlesnakes: Live and Cooked

Most of the obvious risks associated with venomous snake care are easy to avoid (in a reputable zoo, that is…one cannot properly prepare for a bite delivered by a snake in a private collection). When working with Spitting Cobras, for example, safety glasses are always worn. Emergencies occur, of course, and then you must sometimes make do without. In the escape mentioned earlier, for example, I arrived on the scene not knowing that Red Spitting Cobras were involved, and I had to immediately evacuate visitors, many of whom were children, from the area.


Western Diamondback rattlesnake

Uploaded to Wikipedia Commons by Gary Stolz

But, as in most fields, the greatest dangers arise from unexpected situations – those that we don’t imagine or believe can happen. This was the case one day when I was in a Bronx Zoo holding area, checking on some newly-arrived Western Diamondback Rattlesnakes. The snakes had been confiscated the night before, in a store in NYC, of all places. Several police officers had entered following a report of a burglary, and found snakes instead of criminals. The snakes, mainly Western Diamondbacks, were being held in a variety of slip-shod containers; several dead individuals were in cooking pots, alcoholic drinks, and “medicines”. As usual, the Bronx Zoo was summoned.


“Hey…Rattlesnakes Can’t Spit”

Co-workers and I had installed the snakes in screen-topped aquariums in an isolation room at the zoo’s Reptile House. As is dictated by protocol (and common sense!), I was careful not to lean on any screen tops as I checked the animals. All were highly agitated. Unable to see one individual clearly through the tank’s glass side, I peered down into the screen top. The snake struck at the top, and I instantly felt a splash of liquid in both eyes.


Javan Spitting Cobra

Uploaded to Wikipedia Commons by Department of Sustainability & Environment

The standard wisdom is that only Spitting Cobra venom can cause eye damage. In the rare event that another type of venom enters the eye, it needs merely to be washed out; a follow-up with a doctor, to assure that an infection does not take hold, should follow. But this incident was unique for two reasons. First, the force of the snake’s strike against the screening had propelled the venom into my eyes. Second, I had just returned to work following a cornea transplant. There were numerous stitches in my eye, and they were not all that stable.


I felt a stinging sensation (which is not typical for other than Spitting Cobra venom) and thought that perhaps the venom had seeped under my cornea through the stitches. I wondered if the transplant could be ruined, and if I might suffer a typical envenomation as well, once the venom moved further along in my body.


Just When You Thought You Had Seen Everything…

The Bronx Zoo’s snakebite protocol relies upon the NYC Police Department for transport to the hospital. Fortunately, several NYPD Officers are always on the grounds. I was on friendly terms with all – one, in fact, was a former BZ animal keeper, and all were top-notch. It’s hard to surprise an officer who’s spent some time in the Bronx, but I did a good job that day! In less time than I could imagine, I was at Jacobi Hospital being attended to by a young doctor who, after some time in a busy Bronx emergency room, thought he had seen it all!


All went smoothly, and I suffered no symptoms of envenomation. It would have been interesting to learn if the venom had entered my body via a cornea stitch, but in those years Bronx hospitals were unbelievably busy (often with unbelievable, at least to me, cases) and there was no time for speculation or experimentation – I was shuttled out as quickly as I’d arrived!



Further Reading

A Close Call with a King Cobra

Snake Escapes!


Thanksgiving at the Zoo: The Giant Appetites of Snakes, Frogs, and Moles

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAArticles on holiday over-eating always appear as Thanksgiving approaches. Throughout my career as a zookeeper, a variety of creatures have amazed me with their abilities to consume massive meals. Reptiles and amphibians are the most impressive diners, with a 60 pound deer, swallowed by a wild Green Anaconda, being my most notable observation. But several others take even larger meals, comparatively. For example, one Fer-de-Lance (Bothrops atrox) successfully consumed a lizard that exceeded the snake’s weight by over 50%! The 17 young Spitting Cobras taken in a single “sitting” by an African Bullfrog are also worthy of mention. From Star-nosed Moles to Asian Elephants, the mammals I’ve cared for have impressed me as well. Please feel free to quote my stories if friends and family criticize you for over-indulging this year, and have a Happy Thanksgiving!


Anaconad, me and MariaGiant Constrictors

I’ve had the good fortune to work with Green Anacondas for many years, in both the wild and captivity, and I’ve written several articles about their amazing appetites (please see links below). A 60 pound White-tailed Deer regurgitated by a massive wild female topping 17 feet in length remains the largest snake meal I’ve witnessed. Other memorable Anaconda food items include a 5-foot-long Spectacled Caiman, a large Red-footed Tortoise, and a hefty Giant Side-necked Turtle.


The world’s other giant constrictors – Reticulated, Burmese, Indian and African Rock Pythons – are also champion diners. The largest meal I’ve been able to track down in a published source is a 130 pound Impala taken by African Rock Python. A captive 25-foot-long Reticulated Python came close, consuming 138 pounds of food (Ibex, domestic goats) over several days. Please see the linked articles for details.


Vipers and Elapids

But it is among the vipers that we find the true gluttons (or eating champs, depending on your point of view!). In his spectacular book Snakes, the Evolution of Mystery in Nature (U. Cal. Press, 1997), Harry Greene recounts examples of Viperids consuming prey that exceeded their own body weight. I was amazed to read of a Fer-de-Lance (Bothrops atrox) that ate a Whiptail Lizard which outweighed the snake by 56%, and a 23 gram Hog-nosed Viper (Porthidium nasutum) that swallowed a 29 gram Spiny Pocket Mouse. Mr. Greene likened such feats to himself downing a 200+ pound hamburger, intact, in less than 1 hour, and without the use of hands or utensils!


Gaboon Viper

Uploaded to Wikipedia Commons by TimVickers

Gaboon Vipers are well-known as large-meal specialists. Those I’ve worked with have awed me with their mass, and I have no trouble believing that a wild specimen was found to contain an antelope (Red Duiker) that was 4% heavier than the snake itself. A Harlequin Coral Snake (Micrurus fulvius) – not known for taking massive food items – was able to down a Glass Lizard that exceeded its own weight by 37%.


Digestive Systems that Grow and Shrink

While most people who overdo it at Thanksgiving suffer a variety of discomforts, snakes have no such worries. Recent research has revealed that some have evolved a truly remarkable means of adapting to large, infrequent feeding bouts. Within 24 hours of a meal, the liver and intestines of Indian Pythons actually grow larger! Eventually, the intestine’s diameter increases by 30% and its mucus membranes, responsible for nutrient absorption, become 3x thicker than usual. The liver’s circumference becomes 2/3 larger than its pre-meal size. All returns to normal within a week or so after a meal has passed through the intestinal tract.


Indian Python eating Chital Deer

Uploaded to Wikipedia Commons by Rakesh Kumar Dogra

I wouldn’t be surprised if other herps were found to have unique digestive adaptations as well. However, I can’t help but think that the cobra-eating African Bullfrog described in this article suffered at least some digestive distress!


Keeping up with Moles, Shrews, and Elephants

I have wide interests, and was, for a time, the Bronx Zoo’s head mammal keeper. Over time, I’ve had experiences feeding some of the world’s tiniest and largest mammals.


Back in my early teens, while working at a nature center in New Paltz, NY, I came across a Star-nosed Mole. Bizarre beyond belief, it was gorging on earthworms driven to the surface by heavy rains. I grabbed the surprisingly-powerful creature and popped it into a large coffee can. I tossed in several earthworms, and was shocked to see the mole slurp them down as if it was in its usual habitat! At the time, I was in charge of collecting and caring for a huge array of animals, including woodchucks, baby raccoons, flying squirrels and numerous native herps, birds, and insects, and simply could not keep up with the mole’s appetite. Reluctantly, I released the ravenous little beast – I’ve yet to come across another.


Star-nosed Mole

Uploaded to Wikipedia Commons by en:User:Big iron

I also kept another small insectivore, the Short-tailed Shrew. Driven by a heart that beats over 1,000 times per minute, these hyper little guys were quite common in fields at the Bronx Zoo. I trapped several, and kept them for varying periods. Just recently my nephew and I came across one while we were feeding some Chipmunks. The little guy surprised my nephew by hauling away a huge chunk of cheese bread (one of the few times I’ve seen this equally ravenous 6-year-old part with such a delicacy!).


Most shrews consume at least 1.25 x their bodyweight in food each day. By contrast, the Asian Elephants I cared for ate only 1-1.5% of their body mass daily. But this amounted to 300-375 pounds of yams, carrots, hay and such, delivered by the wheelbarrow-full…and nearly equal amounts of elephant waste. I much preferred caring for shrews and moles!




Further Reading

People as Python Prey: Surprising Statistics!

Giant and Unusual Snake Meals



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