Tuesday, August 27, 2013

A Visit from the Doc: American Alligator

Each year, our subadult american alligator is removed from the exhibit for a routine physical examination by a contracted veterinarian.  The animal is measured, weighed and given a general physical exam, then is returned to the exhibit.  This is always a big day for the herpetology department, so all hands are on deck to ensure that this process goes safely and smoothly.  


Curator Travis Land holds the alligator while I apply tape to his mouth.  Alligators have very strong muscles to close their jaws with incredible force, but the muscles used to open the jaws are quite weak, so tape is used to keep the alligator's mouth shut during transport to ensure both our safety and his comfort.

With the alligator out of the exhibit, keepers jump at the opportunity to get in and do some serious scrubbing.

The slow metabolism of reptiles makes it fairly dangerous to put them under anesthesia.  Instead, keepers hold the alligator still on the exam table while the vet checks his eyes, mouth, muscle tone and blood chemistry.

Travis (left) holds the tape measure used to determine his length (6 feet 2 inches) and he is weighed by zeroing out a scale with my weight and then stepping on holding the alligator.  We had bets going for what his weight would be: 63.5 pounds.

The last stage in the process is to take routine x-rays of his entire body.  For this, keepers wear protective lead gowns while holding the alligator.

It took four large x-ray films to cover the entire body.  Here they are lined up on light boards.

Finally, the alligator is carried back into the exhibit, where he pouted for a few moments but perked right back up at his evening feeding.

Thanks for reading!!

Friday, July 19, 2013

Turtle Census

It's midsummer and for us that means it's time for turtle census.  Each year we collect data on the several species of basking turtles that live in the lake outside the VLM.  Turtles are caught in humane and safe traps and are then identified, measured, marked and released.  We count how many of each species we find and keep track of any that are captured multiple times from year to year. In a previous post I introduced the species we see most frequently.

Sometimes we have students that help us mark and release the turtles, but this year the data is being collected by VLM staff only so no one has been around with a camera, but I will post a few photos from previous years.
Setting the traps

Later that day VLM educators bringing in the traps
VLM staff helping a student measure the carapace length
All done and ready to be released!

Thanks for reading! 

Tuesday, June 4, 2013

Lucky the Turtle

The position of the Virginia Living Museum on an existing lake with native wildlife naturally in the area creates a backdrop for our trail and outdoor exhibits that truly illustrates Virginia nature.  Occasionally, our responsibility as caretakers of the animals here at the museum extends to the wildlife that lives here on the property.  As the herpetologist, I am often called to remove a snake from a mammal exhibit or to identify a frog for a guest on the trail.  This past Sunday, however, we received an opportunity to save the life of one of the many wild turtles that lives in our lake.  Luckily, this female Redbelly Turtle was up in the outdoor amphitheater when some visitors were walking by and noticed some fishing line protruding from her mouth.  If it hadn’t been for that unlikely encounter we never would have found this turtle and been able to help her.

It turned out the turtle had a fishhook embedded in her mouth which we were able to easily remove.  After recovery she was released back into the lake where she will now have a much easier time eating, and will be a lot more comfortable.

The turtle as found, with fishing line sticking out of her mouth.

Here you can clearly see the hook embedded in her mouth between the sides of the silver tool used to gently hold her mouth open.

The part of the hook with the barb on it was cut so the hook could be easily removed without damaging any tissue.  Here is the hook after removal.

Friday, May 24, 2013

A Blind Turtle?!?

The herpetology department at the Virginia Living Museum gets all kinds of calls with questions about animals.  Usually we can quickly help the person by identifying animals, explaining behaviors, or calming fears and discomforts.  Occasionally, however, the answer to their question isn't so simple.  A couple of weeks ago a guest came in with what she called a "turtle with no eyes."   What arrived at the museum was a hatchling mud turtle that indeed appeared to have a developmental problem with its eyes.   The turtle is tiny, so we were not able to properly assess the turtle's condition ourselves.  A trip to a specialist vet in animal eye care confirmed, this turtle indeed has no eyes, and the doctor explained he would probably never develop them.  A blind turtle would have very little chance of survival in the wild, so he has become part of the VLM family, where we take care of him with his unique needs in mind.  We make sure to provide him with food that moves (like tiny crickets and worms) so he can feel them, which he responds to quite well.  This little turtle has certainly become a celebrity quickly around the staff at the VLM.  His blindness actually makes him quite bold (another thing that would hurt his chances in the wild.)  Since he can't see us he is not threatened by us like a normal wild turtle would be, so he spends a lot of time with his head out of his shell.   What a feisty little guy!

Thanks to Karl Rebenstorf for the photo!

Tuesday, April 9, 2013

Lunch Time Trail Walk

Today we took a walk on the trail during lunch time.  It was a beautiful, sunny 77 degrees, so we knew there would be herps out.  Unfortunately, our search didn't turn up any snakes this time, but we did see a few cold blooded creatures.

Several pond turtles bask in a row.

A yellow-bellied slider soaks up some sun. (Distinguished by the yellow
tear drop shaped markings on the sides of the face.)
A beautiful painted turtle chooses to bask on land rather than a log. (Notice the two
yellow dots on the head and the red stripe on the neck.)

Red-bellied cooter found a sunny spot too! (Note the reddish color of
the plastron.)

American Bullfrogs are out in full force!

Keep an eye out for our warm weather loving friends!

Thanks for reading!!!

Wednesday, April 3, 2013

Wandering Wildlife

It's that time of year again! The herps are out!

A coworker recently spent 3 hours in a nearby park and saw 7 turtles and 34 snakes!

The weather is warming up and the reptiles and amphibians are emerging.  This means we will start to experience more and more interaction with them.  Every year, especially during the summer the VLM receives many walk-ins with animals.  It is natural to see a reptile in your yard or on the road and think to bring it to the VLM.  However, we are not a rehabilitation facility and therefore simply don't have the space and resources to care for the wildlife of Hampton Roads.  So, we ask that you try a few other options before considering the VLM. Here are a few things to keep in mind:
  1. If it isn't obviously injured it's most likely fine.  Reptiles are incredibly hardy and can heal very easily on their own.  If an animal seems sluggish it is likely just cold and seeking a place to bask.
  2. Babies (especially turtles) do best if left alone.  It is easy to think you are doing a turtle a favor by bringing it in as a pet when it is very young, to help it survive.  However, turtles need to learn their habitat when they are young in order to be able to find food and water throughout their lives, so it's very important that they spend their first few years in their natural habitat, they do not survive well if kept as pets and then released.  Box Turtles sometimes live even longer than humans do, so taking on a pet box turtle is a commitment your grandchildren will likely end up with.
  3. Injured wildlife should be taken to a vet or licenced rehabilitator.  The following resources may help you:
Occasionally a situation presents itself in which none of these options apply.  In these rare circumstances we do what we can for the animals brought to us.

A group of hibernating Rough Earthsnakes was mistakenly dug up in a garden in the late winter this year and the individual knew the snakes would not likely survive if released in the below freezing weather.  The snakes were brought to the VLM, treated for superficial injuries and released when the weather warmed up this past week.

Bundle of very cold Rough Earthsnakes

Here is one of the largest individuals, for a size reference

Released back into the wild!

In general, we encourage members and guests to enjoy wildlife at a distance.  Reptiles are often the hardest animals to obey this rule with, but it remains very important.  Admire with the eyes only, not the hands, and appreciate and respect these incredible animals for what they are: wild.

Thanks for reading!

Tuesday, March 5, 2013

How Much Does He Weigh?

Almost every day I am asked by a visitor "how big is that animal?" or "how much does he weigh?" Usually my answer is an estimate.  I don't know off the top of my head because we have a LOT of animals to look after.  However, the exact number is something I could look up.  That's because we weigh every single one of our reptiles and amphibians at least once a month.  This is quite the undertaking since we have almost 90 reptiles and nearly 80 amphibians in our collection! 

Keeping track of each animal's weight is very important.  It allows us to make sure that those who are young and should be growing are gaining weight, those who are overweight and should be losing weight are losing weight and full grown adults are maintaining a stable weight.  Data obtained through weighing each animal is used to adjust diets as well as prescribe the proper amount of medication for any animal that may need it.  Weights also allow us to get a good close look at each of our animals.  Since many of our exhibits are stable little ecosystems the animals do not need to be removed frequently.  In fact, we try to limit handling of exhibit animals to only during weighing to limit the stress to the animals as much as possible.  As long as an individual eats normally, behaves normally and looks normal we only remove them from the exhibit for weights. 
Keepers keep track of each animal's weight in a notebook.  After they are recorded on paper they are entered into a computer data system and the original sheets are filed.

Here is our greater siren on the scale.

Exhibit eastern hellbender ready to be weighed.
Some of our amphibians, such as the eastern hellbender, left, have gills and must remain in the water in order to breathe.  For these species we fill a bin or bucket with some water from their exhibit and take the weight of the water without the animal first.  We then "tare" or zero the scale to erase the weight of the water.  That way when we weigh the same bucket of water with the animal in it we get only the weight of the animal displayed on the scale.

Every animal is weighed in its own clean container to protect our collection from the possible spread of parasites or diseases.

Left, a slimy salamander weighs in at 9.1 grams.  Below, a cave salamander is weighed.  These two salamanders live together in an exhibit with others of the same species.  In cases like these we must find ways to identify each individual.

Our glass lizard (a type of lizard that has no legs) sits in his container on the scale.  Many people mistake this animal for a snake, but look closely on your next visit to the museum and you will notice he has external ear openings and eyelids, both traits that snakes lack.

Thanks for reading!