Most people are afraid of snakes and other reptiles, and not without reason. After all, many reptiles are poisonous, and not everyone can immediately tell which are poisonous and which are not. But reptiles are interesting animals, and you can gain much pleasure from observing them.
Because reptiles have no internal mechanism to regulate their temperature, they must warm or cool themselves by means of their outside environment. They are said to be ectotherms (coldblooded animals). Mammals and birds are endotherms (warm-blooded animals), meaning that they are able to maintain a body temperature in a very narrow range by an internal mechanism.
You can purchase many reptiles in pet stores. (We won't describe techniques for catching and handling them here, as that could be dangerous to both you and the reptile.) Ask the pet store personnel for their advice on care when you purchase your pet, and get a book or two on the subject. As some animal species are endangered, you should deal only with reputable stores.
It is not easy to study reptiles in nature. Most of them are shy animals that rapidly disappear at the approach of Homo sapiens.
- books about snakes or other reptiles
- 75-L aquarium or wooden box with glass front
- wire screen, perforated Masonite, Plexiglas with small air holes, or glass large enough to cover top of box
- Velcro tape
- metric ruler
- aquarium gravel
- duct tape
- incandescent lamp with fixture (A 75-watt reflective spotlight works well.)
- rocks, sticks, and other natural materials
- feeding materials (depending on species)
- baby liquid multivitamins
- Decide what reptile to get, and research it in advance. Make sure to choose a species that is safe, not too expensive, legal, and one that you will realistically be able to care for.
- Design your reptile's living structure. You can use an aquarium, or a wooden box with a glass front. With nonaquatic reptiles, it is necessary to cover the box with a snug (but not airtight) cover. Snakes especially have a rare talent for finding a small opening. The cover can be a piece of wire screen, perforated Masonite, Plexiglas with small air holes, or glass slightly raised for ventilation. Secure the cover in place with Velcro tape.
- Make your reptile feel at home. You want to be careful about adding too many things that will make the cage too wet or unsanitary, but with careful planning you can create an interesting environment for the enjoyment of both you and your cold-blooded friend. Depending on your reptile's needs, you can divide the cage climate into broad categories and create a set of zones appropriate to the species-for example, desert, temperate-zone region, or bog-and select plants and other surroundings that are compatible. You can research these environments in the library or on the Internet. Plants are a nice addition, but add them conservatively. For maximum sanitation, place a deep layer of washed aquarium gravel 3 to 5 cm in the bottom of the cage. From time to time, pick up excreta (waste) and contaminated gravel with a scoop. Properly managed, a reptile cage can be as decorative as the handsomest aquarium.
- The illumination of the cage and the warmth it provides are important, both for the welfare of the animals and for satisfactory viewing. Most reptiles do best at temperatures slightly above 20°C, the desert species preferring temperatures as high as 38°C.
- Plan your reptile's diet. Few reptiles are vegetarians, although some turtle and lizard species will eat lettuce. The rest demand meat in various forms.
- Most turtles will eat any kind of meat offered, including a bit of your finger if you are not careful. Cod or ocean perch seem particularly tasty to aquatic turtles. Several of the more terrestrial (land-dwelling) species thrive on dog food. All aquatic turtles sold in pet stores are unable to eat when they are out of water.
- Most lizards are insectivores, eating moths, flies, beetles, grubs, grasshoppers, and so on. Such prey are not easy to come by in the winter, and it is almost impossible to convert a lizard to foods such as beef or fish. Mealworms and crickets can be bought in pet stores. It is not difficult to raise mealworms in amounts sufficient for one or two small lizards, but a larger lizard can put away 75 to 100 worms a week—make sure to budget for your pet's appetite! Crickets may be a better food choice for lizards. They are larger, more digestible, and more nutritious.
- Snakes are probably the most fascinating of all the reptiles. All snakes are carnivorous. In most cases, this means you must supply them with mice or rats for food (available at pet stores), although water and ribbon snakes will eat fish (minnows or thawed pieces of frozen fish). Garter snakes can be induced to eat chopped earthworms mixed with hamburger; later they can be graduated to hamburger alone. Do not attempt to keep racers, coachwhips, or venomous snakes such as rattlers or copper-heads. The danger of getting bitten or poisoned is great.
- Perhaps the most important item in the reptilian diet is an adequate vitamin supplement. Virtually all reptiles are sun worshipers, and in captivity they must have vitamin D to compensate for the lack of sunshine. Include one or two drops of baby liquid multivitamins per 30 mL of drinking water.
- Water your reptiles properly. A snake will drink from any dish large enough to admit its head and an equal length of neck. Some lizards will drink from a dish; others, from a watering bottle. Some, such as the anoles, must be watered with a dropper or by sprinkling the plants in their habitat.
Mealworms, the larval form of the darkling beetle that commonly occurs around granaries, are a splendid food for insectivores, apparently supplying all the important trace nutrients.
Carnivores eat meat.
Herbivores eat plants.
Omnivores eat both.
Which are you?
An unusually charming specimen is the red-bellied snake, which grows to a maximum length of 25 cm. It requires a steady diet of small angleworms or garden slugs (the brown ones, not gray), which are easily raised in leafy litter, with lettuce and chicken mash as food.
Anoles and chameleons are very popular pets. With proper research, you can raise them with little difficulty. Chameleons have the fascinating ability to change their skin color to match their background, for purposes of camouflage.
- Introduce your reptile to its new home. Reptiles to be placed in a decorated cage should be carefully inspected for mites. Once introduced into such a cage, mites hide themselves in crevices and are almost impossible to eliminate.
- Plan a scientific study of your reptile. You can do a behavior study to determine its optimal response to food, light, or terrain. Snakes shed their skin periodically. You can save your snake's skins to document its growth. Can you train your reptile to find food in a certain location or at a certain time of day?
Good snake choices include bull, corn, fox, and rat snakes. Chameleons and turtles are other popular reptilian pets.
What is its habitat? What does it eat? What other creatures does it get along with? The species you choose determines all the rest of the steps of creating a dwelling and a diet plan.
Aquatic reptiles-such as turtles and frogs-live in water; nonaquatic reptiles include lizards and most snakes, although there are water snakes.
Avoid using wire screen to cover a snake cage. Snakes have a tendency to rub their noses on the screen and injure themselves. For some of the stronger species of snake, a sturdy top is needed, perhaps with a weight or a clasp to hold it down.
Some reptiles will burrow into the gravel.
To monitor the temperature, hang a thermometer inside the cage from a string taped to the top edge of one wall. You can achieve good temperature control by balancing the heat of incandescent lamps against the heat loss through the sides of the cage and by whatever air circulation there may be. Reptiles govern their body temperature by absorbing heat in varying amounts from their surroundings. An incandescent lamp at the top of the cage, such as a 75-watt reflective spotlight, together with the location of rocks or sticks at various distances from the light source, permit the animals to select their own temperature conditions. The incandescent spotlight will provide both visible radiation (light) and infrared radiation (heat). The radiation is concentrated toward the middle of the beam, however; it is therefore important to direct it so that the animal can get out of the beam and avoid overheating. Start by mounting the bulb so that the front of the bulb is about 25 cm from the highest piece of furniture in the cage.
You may notice a relationship between temperature and the level of reptilian activity. If your reptile is sluggish and rarely moves, raising the temperature may increase activity. But make sure to research the proper temperature range for your pet–you do not want to overheat a poor animal that is ordinarily slow in the wild.
It is astonishing to observe how quickly these not especially bright creatures learn that they can warm up most quickly by climbing to the highest point in the cage. When several lizards are in a cage and the light comes on after a cool night, an amusing scramble for top position usually ensues.
Iguanas in Your Home: A Complete and Up-to-Date Guide (Basic Domestic Pet Library series) by R. M. Smith (New York: Chelsea House, 1997).
My Pet Lizards (All about Pets series) by Leeanne Engfer (Minneapolis: Lerner, 1999).
Snakes and Such (What a Pet series) by Alvin Silverstein, Virginia Silverstein, and Laura Silverstein Nunn (Chicago: Twenty-First Century Books, 1999).
Society for the Study of Amphibians and Reptiles: www.ukans.edu/-ssar/ssar.html
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