It’s always exciting when we open a new exhibit at the San Diego Zoo, and when words like “giant,” “poison,” and “two-headed” grace the signage, well, it’s bound to be a major crowd pleaser! The brand-new Reptile Walk, home to more than 50 species of turtles, tortoises, crocodilians, amphibians, and a surprising collection of creatures native to California, is interesting, startling, and way cool, both literally and figuratively. Locals can stake claim to living in a biodiversity hotspot, and everyone can behold the fascinating creatures that swim, slither, saunter, and scurry through life. Even if you suffer from herpetophobia (fear of reptiles), a stroll along Reptile Walk will render you utterly at ease, if not downright smitten, with this captivating group of animals.
The design of the exhibits and viewing areas show how our understanding of the different species’ natural history has increased over the years, as well as our awareness about how people like to view animals in their environment. The old reptile buildings behind the Zoo’s Reptile House were almost tunnel-like in their limited viewing space, but the new Reptile Walk buildings have wide, breathable walking spaces with glass viewing areas low enough for kids to get a good look at the creatures within. It struck me how fearless and curious children are when viewing reptiles and amphibians. Apparently we learn our fears later in life!
The giant horned lizard inspired a woman to say to her friend, “Remember when we used to see those in the backyard all the time?” Many people were agog at the Mexican giant tree frog, which posed with statue-like stillness for photos, skin glistening. The screaming blue dyeing poison frog, housed with a yellow black-legged poison frog apparently get along well enough to keep their toxins to themselves.
Harboring a touch of ophidiophobia (fear of snakes) myself, I’ve been known to blanch at the sight of a snake basking in the sun, telltale bulge of its latest rodent meal slowly digesting. But as an artsy exhibit sign (see above) reminded me, only 375 of the 3,300 species of snakes have venom hazardous to humans, so what do I have to fear? And snakes, like the resting rosy boa before me, more than earn their keep by devouring insects, rats, and mice, which would overrun our communities in short order if the snakes didn’t keep their populations in check. One of nature’s more intriguing anomalies was the two-headed California king snake. The sign explained that it started out as twins, but the embryo didn’t split properly so, voilà, two heads are better than one, right? Sure, until they start squabbling. Zookeepers say they feed each head separately, lest one decides to swipe its partner’s food. Nothing gets people quite as excited as two-headed animals.
The open-air exhibit for the critically endangered Chinese alligators is part sand, part water, with ample basking areas for the two females that share the space. Dams built along the Yangtze River in their homeland destroyed much of their wetland habitat, so restoration efforts are underway. They survive well in zoos and perhaps one day they can be repatriated to their native land.
Continuing along our path, the turtle house is breezy and cool, with an exotic view of the forested hillside and eucalyptus trees tall as buildings. Skyfari aerial tram buckets scoot by in the distance above. There are multispecies pond exhibits, with turtles of all persuasions paddling peacefully by. The critically endangered Roti Island snake-necked turtles really know how to stick their necks out! There are a couple of enclosures with juvenile turtles smaller than the palm of my hand. Awwww.
I feel energized! Reptile Walk has reminded me of the importance of wet habitats, like marshes, bogs, fens (love that word), and swamps and the beautiful array of wildlife that lives there. It’s a delicate balance to be sure, and it would serve us well to step a little softer as we trek through the Earth’s wild spaces.
Karyl Carmignani is a staff writer for San Diego Zoo Global. Read her previous post, A Fresh Look at the Zoo.