The Wondrous Reptile House

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Zoo InternQuest is a seven-week career exploration program for San Diego County high school juniors and seniors.  Students have the unique opportunity to meet professionals working for the San Diego Zoo, Safari Park, and Institute for Conservation Research, learn about jobs, and then blog about their experience online.  Follow their adventures here!

When I walked into the reptile house this past week, it was like stepping into another world. The temperature was cranked up for the building’s exotic denizens—and wow, were they exotic! From giant tortoises to emerald snakes to spotted frogs, it was a trip intothe fantastic unknown. Keeper and Educator Peter Gilson gave my fellow interns and I a fantastic tour of the facility. I learned a lot about reptiles and amphibians, and took many photos to share with you.

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Peter Gilson works both in Education and with the Reptile Department. Our introduction to his charges began with a group of very friendly Galapagos tortoises! Much to my surprise, I discovered that these slow-moving giants love affection.


Galapagos tortoises will rise up high on their legs and stretch up their necks if you start scratching them. I made a new friend in Winston, a 600-pound male who prefers human attention to food.

Some of the other tortoises were very interested in food! They like their greens very much. This guy spent most of our visit munching on lettuce and broccoli.

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Next stop was the Reptile House! The staff have a very efficient system for communicating where they are and what they are doing. For example, if a red dot is by somebody’s name in the “IN” column, it means that they are currently working with a venomous animal.

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The Zoo also breeds some of the reptiles under its care. The eggs are kept in plastic soil-filled containers, which in turn are incubated in special machines.

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This female bushmaster snake is one of three that hatched out last April. Endangered species like the bushmaster have a system called a Species Survival Plan (SSP) that directs who should breed with whom in order to preserve the most genetic diversity within the species. This girl’s best match happens to live in Sweden!

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Speaking of endangered: the Panamanian golden frog is extinct in the wild, but the San Diego Zoo has a very successful breeding program. The Zoo’s Reptile House is one of the only places in the world where these animals can be found. Unfortunately, they cannot be reintroduced back into their natural habitat at this time.

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Like many amphibians worldwide, Panamanian golden frogs have been infected with chytrid fungus. Chytrid fungus invades the surface layer of the frogs’ skin. As many as two-thirds of amphibian species are at risk for extinction because of this disease, and there is currently no known cure.

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It is currently believed that global warming is exacerbating the spread and severity of chytrid fungus. You can help Panamanian golden frogs like this one by keeping your electricity use to a minimum. If we all pull together, maybe this frog and its offspring can eventually go swimming in Panama, too!

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Most of the reptiles, including this emerald tree boa, are on exhibit and can be seen by the public. Whenever you donate to the Zoo—even if it’s just in the form of buying a stuffed animal—it helps keepers like Mr. Gilson care for cool creatures like this big guy!

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Mr. Gilson made sure to mention that even if snakes scare you, they still have crucial roles to play in the global ecosystem. They can even be interesting to touch, if you are in a secure environment with someone like Mr. Gilson.

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Our tour of the Reptile House was fantastic. I got to lift the ball python (whose name is “Monty Python”)! I want to have these guys around long into the future—which is why I’m definitely going to be turning out the lights whenever I’m the last to leave a room.

Cameron, Photo Team
Week Four, Winter Session 2013