Reptiles: The Misunderstood Species

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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 their jobs and then blog about their experience online. Follow their adventures here on the Zoo’s Website!

sabrina_w1_picFrom Komodo dragons and albino pythons to baby turtles and poison dart frogs, the San Diego Zoo’s Reptile House is one of the most intriguing places in the Zoo. It was near this peculiar area of the Zoo that we met Zoo Educator Guide and Reptile Keeper Peter Gilson. If those two titles seem like a strange combination, that could be true. When I think of a Zoo Educator, I think of someone who works to save cuddly animals like pandas or dolphins, not slimy snakes or crawly lizards. We humans tend to think of reptiles as sneaky, lethargic, and cold-blooded. “Reptiles and amphibians are misunderstood and unappreciated,” said Mr. Gilson—and that’s why he chose the job he did.

For instance, on our first stop we met the Galapagos tortoises, who were about as warm-hearted as an animal can get. Since it’s winter, they get to spend part of their time heated building behind their exhibit. At more than a hundred years old, these big guys need all the coddling they can get. Not that age has slowed them down—the top speed of a Galapagos tortoise is a zippy four miles per day. Their prey during our visit was hand-fed Romaine lettuce. Some of the tortoises headed straight for the food, while other, calmer individuals stood still and stretched their necks out to be scratched. They were a bit like puppies, actually. Each one had his own personality, but they all wanted the same two things: food and attention!

Speaking of baby animals, what do you call a baby turtle? I don’t know, but we met a couple of them behind-the-scenes of one of the Zoo’s turtle tanks. The mata mata was the largest we saw and the Chinese three-striped box turtle only hatched about a month ago. However, my personal favorite was the Roti Island snake-necked turtle, which is one of the most critically endangered turtles in the world. Apparently, turtles are a big deal to conservationists in San Diego County. The western pond turtle, the only aquatic turtle native to San Diego, is being pushed out of its habitat by the red-eared slider, an invasive species. Sometimes people will buy a slider as a pet when it’s a baby and release it into the wild when it’s too big to take care of. Then these ecological castaways breed and take all the food and space away from the western pond turtle. The other San Diego turtle species, the California desert tortoise, has the opposite problem. This tortoise has been cursed with cute. People see it and immediately want to take it home (and squeeze it and call it George). Since it’s hard to breed when you’re miles away from your natural habitat, the desert tortoise’s population is declining. So don’t be fooled by the cute! Let the California desert tortoise stay in the desert and your red-eared slider stay in your home.

It’s not just turtles that are endangered in San Diego, though. Mr. Gilson mentioned a species of frog, the mountain yellow-legged frog, which is extinct in San Diego County. It survives in other parts of California, however, and conservation efforts are ongoing. Ironically, some of the rain forest amphibians behind-the-scenes at the Amphibian House were both yellow and endangered as well, like the golden matella from Madagascar. This species is one of the smallest frogs on the planet and one of the cutest (in my opinion). Another denizen of Madagascar, the leaf-tailed gecko, was living next door to the golden matella. Mr. Gilson brought out two of the geckos for us and their bodies literally looked like leaves! I’m convinced that one of them was trying to escape from Mr. Gilson and come home with me, but alas, my house is nothing like the Zoo.

So helping reptiles (and amphibians), both in exotic places and our own backyards, is easier than I initially thought. Just leave them alone. Don’t take them away from their habitat or their habitat away from them. Sometimes creatures do need to be saved, and that’s why there are guys like Peter Gilson. That’s why we have the World Famous San Diego Zoo.

Sabrina, Real World Team
Week One, Winter Session 2014