Today, I was treated to a behind-the-scenes “natives” tour at the reptile house and got to visit with a Burrowing Owl at the Sacramento Zoo. There were two school buses full of kids there, so I didn’t hang around much after the tour, but I still got to see and learn some cool stuff. My tour guides were Kathryn, a keeper named Bill (who did all the reptile house stuff) and a keeper named Mike who showed me the Burrowing Owl.
CLICK HERE for the album of photos.
Inside the back of the reptile house it was warm and kind of humid (which is what most of the reptile need to feel comfortable). The place is laid out like a snake, in a serpentine pattern, with the back sides of the habitat enclosures along the outer walls and other tanks and materials along the center spaces and inside walls. Each enclosure has pouches on the door with cards that tell when the animals’ feeding scheduled are and what work has taken place during the week, and also give the keepers detailed information on each animal inside the enclosure. Some of the enclosures have one or two specimens inside, but others, like the one for the tiny Dart Frogs, can have a dozen individuals in them. Somehow – usually by color pattern – the keepers can tell who each individual is. Everybody gets weighed about once a week to make sure they’re on track physically.
The first thing I had to do when I got inside the reptile house was dip the soles of my boots in a disinfectant bath to make sure I wasn’t tracking in anything that might harm the animals inside. (And we did the same thing just before leaving the building.)
Some of the critters don’t get enough UV light inside their enclosures (because the light is set in the ceiling of the enclosures and the animals (like turtles) can’t climb up to it. So, sometimes the critters are taken off exhibit and allowed to bask under UV lights in separate terrariums to make sure they get all the “sun” they need. When I was there, they had some handsome Hamilton’s Pond Turtles (Geoclemys hamiltonii) doing the basking thing. The Hamilton’s have beautiful black-and-white polka dotted faces. I don’t remember ever seeing them before, so getting to meet a couple of them was a treat. [They’re native to the Ganges, not California.]
I also got to see the Venomous Bite Alarm: a red phone that automatically connects directly with the local fire department. So, if a keeper or a guest gets bitten by a venomous snake, all someone has to do is knock the receiver off the phone and an alert goes out to emergency personnel who are dispatched immediately. All of the enclosures that hold the venomous snakes also have red warning cards on them, and a garbage can underneath the door, so if the snake lunges out at someone, it falls into the can instead of on a person. Sometimes, the low-tech stuff is what works best.
And I got to see the food room for the reptile house, which is kept separate from the food storage for the other animals in the zoo because it’s comprised mostly of live insects and small frozen mice. There were egg crates crawling with live crickets and bottles of different kinds of worms… Some of the creatures, though, are vegetarians, so there are also greens, small flowers and other goodies for them to eat.
The tour was so cool! I got so much information from the staffers, that I don’t know if I’ll remember it all. But I’ll give you some of the highlights.
I got to see the zoo’s California Newt (Taricha torosa), our state’s endemic newt (found here and nowhere else on earth). The are considered a Species of Special Concern because their numbers are dropping due to habitat loss and having to deal with invasive species like Bullfrogs and Red-Eared Slider Turtles. They’re often confused with Rough-Skinned Newts and Red Bellied Newts, but although they’re all from the same genus, they are separate species.
The newt’s poison (which it excretes through its skin) is so potent, it can kill a dog within 4 minutes. It’s believed that the Common Gartersnake is immune to the toxin.
California Newts breed in February and March in the wild. To keep the newts from going into breeding mode with its associated “water drive” (that causes them to leave their terrestrial homes to go find water in which to breed, preferably the same water source in which they were born) the zoo controls the temperature of their habitat to “skip” the spring and jump from winter directly to a cool summer. So far, depriving the newts of their spring time doesn’t seem to adversely affect them. Because their habitat had to be kept cooler and drier than the rest of the reptiles’ habitats, they have their own room that’s kept around 65° for most of the year.
Like the California Newt, the California Tiger Salamander (Ambystoma californiense) prefers the cool weather, too, so it’s kept in the same enclosure as the newt. It’s also a native and endemic species. It’s considered an Endangered Species and is gone from most of the state. A “mole salamander”, it spends most of its life underground and only comes out for any extended period of time to breed. Although they go through courtship rituals, the males and females don’t actually touch one another to reproduce. The males deposit balls of sperm on the ground or in the water, and the female then drags her body over it.
They breed in vernal pools which are temporary water features, so the baby salamanders either have to develop, absorb their gills and start breathing with their lungs before the pools dry up, or they have to “overwinter”, buried under the ground in a sort of stasis that can last for a year or more and then finish developing the next spring. Amazing.
The spots on their bodies can change as they age, but are always unique to each individual, so the keepers at the zoo can tell who’s who by looking at and tracking the spots.
Next up was the California Giant Garter Snake (Thamnophis gigas). A threatened species, and another endemic one, they’ve lost about 98% of their habitat (!) so there are a lot of efforts throughout the Sacramento Valley to try to reestablish habitat for them – and a lot of that is in and around rice fields. The zoo got their female, which is the snake I met, from a farm after she’d been accidentally run over by some of their equipment. Her body has scars on it she’s blind in one eye, and a good portion of her tail is missing… but she was very mellow and seemed very comfortable with her keeper, who said that these snakes, despite their size, aren’t as aggressive as other gartersnakes and seldom bite. Their defense mechanism is to dive under water (they spend the majority of their time in or around water) or “skunk” their attacker with musk from their cloaca.
The Giant Gartersnake can grow up to 5½ feet long, and although some of the other gartersnake species can get almost as long as the Giants, they don’t have the Giants’ girth. These are thick snakes, like rope. Their diet is mostly made up of aquatic species, lots of fish and frogs.
Then I got to meet one of the zoo’s Common Chuckwallas (Sauromalus ater), a big male with orange staining on his back. I always forget that we have these guys live in this state. I always think of them being from Arizona or Nevada… They do “push-ups” like our Western Fence Lizards do as a warning and territorial display, but their main defense is their skin. They have extra skin hanging from their sides that they can inflate, like a balloon, when they feel threatened. Usually, they’ll climb into a rock crevice, inflate their bodies to wedge themselves in, and wait for whatever is bothering them to leave. Bill, their keeper, said he could tell what their mood was like just by how they felt in his hands. The male Chuckwalla was super docile, and I bet he could have gone to sleep if Bill hadn’t kept moving him this way and that so I could take photos of him.
They have special longer scales around their ears (tympanic membranes) to protect them when the lizard digs into the ground or wedges itself in rocks. And they also secrete excess salt from their nose – which Bill says then then rub onto the front of the glass of their enclosure, dirtying up the glass with their salty snot. Hah!
Although they have a pair of Chuckwallas, a male and a female, the male has yet to fertilize any of the eggs the female lays. Sometimes, they can tell the female is pregnant with eggs, but then she reabsorbed them into her body before they get laid because they don’t get fertilized. Interesting.
Their diet consists of nothing but veggies, and I got to see some of their feeding dishes with included a variety of greens and little flowers, and some protein powder.
Next up was the Pacific Pond Turtle (Actinemys marmorata), California’s endemic turtle which is considered a “vulnerable” species. It’s lost a lot of its territory to the invasive Red Eared Slider Turtle which was brought into California for the pet trade, but then – when people found out how difficult water turtles are to keep – they were just dumped in the wild.
Unlike the Slider Turtles, the Pond Turtles have smooth marginal scutes (the “scales” along the edge of the shell in the rear) and they don’t shed their scutes. Instead, to grow, the scutes add rings to the outer rim of each one (like the rings of a tree). Like the Slider Turtles, male Pond Turtles wave their fingernails in front of the female’s face as part of the courtship ritual.
There are a couple of different ways to tell the males from the females at a glance. The easiest way it to look at the skin under the chin: if it’s a plain creamy color, it’s a male; if it has spots, it’s a female. The female’s cloaca is also closer to the edge of the shell than the male’s is. Both sexes have flat plastrons (the bottom half of the shell). In some other turtle species, the female’s is flat, and the male’s is concave (so he can climb up on top of the female’s shell without rocking off).
As an aside: the Sacramento Zoo is the only zoo in the country that has a clutch of natural-born Pond Turtles. There’s a pond on the zoo property that local wild turtles went into and where they had their babies. At first, the zoo staff didn’t know that they were there, but then they saw crows snatching the babies out of the water, so the staff rushed in to rescue the little ones and now keep them as exhibit animals °and breeding stock.
When we were done with the reptile house visit, Kathryn walked me out to behind the amphitheater where their teaching animals are housed. These included Cameron the Bateleur Eagle, Foster the Laughing Kookaburra, Charlie the Great Horned Owl, and sister Burrowing Owls, Sapphire and Ruby.
Cameron greeted us by lifting her hackles and bowing down on her perch. Rather than it being a threatening gesture, what she was actually doing was asking for someone to scratch her neck. Hah! Charlie was being quiet in his enclosure, peeking out between some lengths of fire hose. He was a rescue and release owl who refused to fly off when he and his fellows were released in the wild. He just sat on the ground, preferring to be with humans than other owls. Mike the keeper who looks after the educational animals, said that it’s the breeding season right now, so a lot of wild owls have been flying into the trees around Charlie’s enclosure eyeing him and hooting to him. Hah!
What I really wanted to see were the Burrowing Owls (Athene cunicularia), and Mike brought out one of them on the glove so I could get a close look at it. The zoo has several Burrowing Owls, but the educational ones are sisters, Ruby and Sapphire. Ruby was being anti-social this morning, so Mike brought out Sapphire. She was super mellow, and just sat on his hand, looking around while he talked about her. (He said she has the worst mouth-breath, but I didn’t notice that. Hah!) The owls, which are native to California, are losing their habitat all over the state, so they’re considered a vulnerable species and Species of Special Concern.
In most raptor species, the females are larger than the males, but this isn’t true of the Burrowing Owls. Males are larger and have a lighter color than the females.
It was so great to see all of the animals up so close. I got to touch most of them (except for the newt and the owl) and took photos of everyone. It was a fun tour; I’m so glad I was able to do it.