A Bomb Shelter for Rare Reptiles

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TuataraOn Thursday, we took a tour of the labyrinth that is the Zoo’s Reptile House. The building’s many connecting rooms give it a maze-like complexity that is unseen by visitors on the outside. The Army Corps built San Diego Zoo’s Reptile House in 1935. Since it was built during the Great Depression and in between both World Wars, the Army Corps built it to be sturdy enough to withstand a military attack. It’s literally a bomb shelter for reptiles! It is a good thing too, because the Reptile House holds part of the Zoo’s reptile collection containing at least 1,400 animals. This also includes many rare and endangered animals such as Burmese star tortoises, snake-necked turtles, and Mang Mountain vipers.

One of these rare animals is a local one, the Western pond turtle. These turtles have recently been featured as part of the new Elephant Odyssey exhibit, and the Zoo has an active program for turtle headstarting. This process starts when the turtles are in their tiny eggs, which are kept in the incubation room inside the Reptile House. Taking care of these eggs is quite tricky because Western pond turtle eggs require substrate with almost desert-like conditions, which is quite different from most eggs. After hatching, the turtles are put in another container to be taken care of. We saw two newly hatched turtles from a few days earlier. Hatchling turtles are very small, not much larger than a quarter! The zoo identifies these turtles by the white dots on their scutes, or the plates on the turtle’s shell. Each reptile at the San Diego Zoo has an identification number and a record that goes along with it. The record contains very detailed information on the animals feeding, growth, and behavior. When the turtles reach maturity, they’ll be released into the wild to help boost their numbers in the wilds of Southern California.

The zoo’s most treasured reptile is one that is held off exhibit. The San Diego Zoo is the only place in North America where you will find tuataras, a species native to the islands of New Zealand. It was definitely a special treat to see such a rare and fascinating creature. They are amazing animals because they are considered to be “living fossils.” Their fossils look just like the skeletons of modern tuataras, and date back to 65 million years ago, which was a time when dinosaurs roamed the earth during the Cretaceous. These unique reptiles live in New Zealand, which means that they deal with the coldest climates of any reptilian species. Tuataras deal with the cold by living in their burrows most of the time. They are becoming more rare because human development sometimes closes off their burrows. Nonnative predators and poaching for the black market are other issues that make tuataras very rare. These reptiles take a long time to mature, about fourteen years, which makes it difficult for species to recover from disturbances to their population. The zoo has two male and six female tuataras and hope to successfully breed them. And when that successful breeding occurs, the Zoo’s bomb shelter is ready! Too bad a bomb shelter like the Zoo’s Reptile House can’t protect them from extinction in the wild.

Curtis, Conservation Team