Scaly Animal Ambassadors

It is easy to see how Floyd and his kind were named blue-tongued skinks!

Part of being an educator at the San Diego Zoo is connecting wildlife to our guests by using animals as a way to trigger interest and concern, especially for children who just love to get close to an animal they’ve never seen before. As a part of the Zoo’s Education Department, I take care of some pretty neat animals that are ambassadors for their species.

Our group of reptile ambassadors is seen by thousands of children a year through school assemblies, animal presentations, sleepovers, and summer, spring, and winter camps. Probably our most famous ambassador is Floyd, the blue-tongued skink. He has been around for quite some time and has the most amazing temperament—always a gentleman and very tolerant of small hands petting him. And personally, he is my favorite to take care of!

Another favorite is Monty, a ball python. Very eager to be handled and always popular with children, one of the best things about Monty is he helps take away the image many people have that snakes are slimy creatures when in fact snakes are smooth and have a special feel all their own. All of the snakes I take care of have a different feel to their scales.

An educator shows off the beautiful colors on Tex.

Tex, a Mexican milk snake, is getting older and doesn’t come out as much; when he does, children love to see his beautiful red, yellow, and black bands. A new addition to our ambassador group has been an albino Nelson’s milk snake. He is more of a pinkish color and even has red eyes. His name is Peppermint Pat and is still getting used to coming out for children, as he is very friendly but also very squirmy!

We have two Australian womas named Mickie and Nooroo (see post Wonderful Womas). One of my favorite things about them is their coloring. At first they look pale green, but as you bring them into the light they seem to have a metallic sheen with a greenish, purple haze. These snakes have a very small head for their body, but they can eat full-grown mice.

A Zoo camper meets Manja, a Madagascar ground boa.

Manja is our biggest snake; this Madagascar ground boa constrictor is a handful for two adults. When we first take him out of his enclosure, he is still waking up and getting used to being outside. But soon he is wiggling everywhere and really makes us work for a smooth animal presentation.

Last but not least is Spot, a spotted salamander who is our only amphibian ambassador. He’s a slimy guy that makes kids, and even adults, giggle when they touch him. He is dark gray with yellow spots and has a good appetite for earthworms and crickets!

These animals are fantastic ambassadors for our zoo. The best part of my job is when I can make a child fall in love with an animal he or she may have never heard of before but now cares deeply about and never wants to hear of them on the Endangered Species List. So keep an eye out for our amazing group of reptiles that work overtime for the San Diego Zoo.

Anastasia Horning is an educator at the San Diego Zoo. Read her previous post, Yun Zi Redecorates.


Wonderful Womas

It’s not all soft and fluffy here at the San Diego Zoo, especially in the Education Department. Those in the know KNOW that sometimes sleek and scaley can be beautiful and fascinating, too. Reptiles are important partners as we pursue our mission of connecting people to wildlife. The Education Department houses some of the Zoo’s reptile collection for daily use in our camps and programs, and others are borrowed as needed. The newest members of our in-house team are Noo Roo and Mickie, our womas. Womas are Australian pythons, native to central and western Austraila and southwestern Queensland. They have orange heads and light and darker brown irregularly striped bodies.

Mickie was hatched at the Reptile House on June 6, 2007, and brother Noo Roo hatched a week later. They lived the early part of their lives there, behind the scenes, but came to join us in the fall of ’08 (we had to wait for them to grow large enough to handle). Right now, they’re about 3 feet (1 meter) long and about 18 ounces (500 grams). Mickie is a little bigger than his younger brother, which makes sense since he is the older brother. Their particular subspecies is also known as the sand python or Ramsay’s python, and we expect them to grow to be about 4 feet (1.2 meters) long, although other types of womas can be darker and larger.

As young guys, their heads are a beautiful yellow-gold color with bright, dark eyes and are really lovely to behold. The color of their heads will darken as they mature. They live in one of our education classrooms, side by side in their own enclosures, and are separate to allow them to be fed on different days (so there’s a woma always available to educate and enlighten while the other is digesting his food). They each get a large mouse weekly, but in addition to rodents, their diet in the wild would include other reptiles, including snakes. It’s unlikely that they would hurt each other, but as long as they’re going to get, they’ll need their own, larger space as they grow.

Mickie and Noo Roo, whose names are aboriginal words for “quick,” are now seasoned veterans at second-grade programs, EnviroSchools, and Critter Coverings, but you can view other womas daily at the Reptile House here at the Zoo.

Ellie Rosenbaum is an educator at the San Diego Zoo.