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Re: Reptile Nostalgia

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Posted by Daryl Eby on September 27, 1997 at 15:58:01:

In Reply to: Reptile Nostalgia posted by Bill Miller on September 27, 1997 at 08:55:44:


: From 1938 through 1943 I had an intense interest in reptiles. Then 50 years passed with no knowledge of what was going on in the field. The only contact with reptiles was an occasional snake hunt with my children. A chance situation brought me to a reptile show in 1993. The shock was extreme. Things have changed tremendously.


: As a child I had been interested in reptiles, and would find and sometimes keep some of our common local species. The interest was both because I liked reptiles and because I had some interest in the technical side. ( I had learned the scientific names and the relationships between some of them.) But then I found a snake I couldn't identify. My high school biology teacher put me in touch with another student who could identify it. On seeing the snake, Elias Cohen proclaimed. That is a queen snake, Natrix septemvittata." Then Elias introduced me to the Natural History Society of Maryland.

: Those were the days. There were meetings every Saturday night and snake hunts about once a week during the season. These people knew their reptiles. Among the attendees were Dr. Howard Kelly (a founder of Johns Hopkins Medical school), Romeo Mansueti (who later became a renowned ichthiologist), the Norman twins, and Frank Groves (who later became Curator of Reptiles at the Baltimore zoo).

: We really regretted the fact that you couldn't breed reptiles in captivity. We concluded that the problem was that we couldn't simulate nature well enough. We envisioned the possibility of a terrarium with live grass and plants as a possible stimulus to breeding. We knew that blisters formed under the scales of snakes if kept under damp conditions, so we didn't try this. We kept all our snakes in wooden cages with screen tops and sliding glass fronts using nothing more than newspaper substrates and a water dish. The snakes did fine, but they certainly didn't breed.
: The only method of sexing snakes in those days, and this applied only to adults, was by the shape of the lower body and tail in the region of the anus. There was no method of sexing baby snakes. Probes were not used, and, to the best of our knowledge, the method of enverting the hemipenus of baby male snakes had not been discovered.

: One of the largest differences, even to the casual observer, between "the good old days" and today is the frequency of sighting of box turtles. There were so many box turtles crossing the roads during the month of June (females seeking nesting sites) that we made frequent stops to help them across the roads so they wouldn't get struck by cars (always take them in the direction they were going or they'll go right back in the road). You don't have to go back 50 years to have experienced this -15 or 20 years will do. You seldom see this today.

: Regarding snake hunts, they were not as fruitful relative to today as you might think. We were skunked more than once. We did find Black Ratsnakes (Elaphe obsoleta obsoleta), Black Racers(Coluber constrictor constrictor), Water Snakes (Natrix sipedon sipedon), Garter Snakes {Thamnophis sirtalis sirtalis), DeKay's Snakes (Storeria dekay dekay), Rough Green Snakes {Opheodrys aestivus), and Ringnecked Snakes (Diadophis punctatus edwardsii). But, except for Garter Snakes, DeKay's Snakes, and Water Snakes, none of these appeared to be plentiful. Regardless of how diligently we hunted, we never found a King Snake (Lampropeltis getulus getulus), Corn Snake (Elaphe gutatta gutatta), or Milk Snake (Lampropeltis triangulum triangulum)..

: Even in those days you could buy reptiles, but they were all wild caught, and, to the best of my knowledge, there was only one place to buy them. This was Ross Allen's Reptile Institute. I bought a Corn Snake from Ross Allen, and it was beautiful. My friend, Romeo Mansueti, who was an artist as well a herpetologist, painted a picture of it in 1940. The picture still hangs above my desk.

: After this background and the passage of 50 years, one day in Septsmber of 1993, while buying bird seed at a feed store, my wife and I picked up a leaflet advertising a reptile show. It was the Mid-Atlantic Reptile Show, and on the leaflet appeared "Captive Born Reptiles (only)". Who were they trying to kid? I'm an old-timer, and I know that reptiles don' t breed in captivity.

: My wife and I attended the show. On the way I remarked, 'This has to be some rinki-dink little nothing show. There can't have been enough reptiles born in captivity to form the basis for a show." On entering the parking lot we were astonished to see hundreds of cars from all over the country. The show itself was even more astonishing. An expansive space filled with dealers selling cative bred reptiles! I glanced down at the first table, and there were dozens of cottage cheese containers each containing a baby snake. (At this booth there were mostly California King Snakes (Lampropeltis getulus californiae) - beautiful little rascals). I asked the dealer if he had bred these snakes, and he assured me that he had. In answer to my naive question "How did you do that?", with a look that seemed to indicate that there was more to this than could be answered simply, he said, "Well, you have to hibernate them". Why didn't we think of that in 1940?

: The show was impressive. I was in shock over the progress that had been made in captive breeding. At one booth there was a cage marked "Male Corn Snakes" and another marked "Female Corn Snakes". These were hatchling snakes. I asked the dealer how he could tell males from females at this age. The man picked up a snake from the male cage, gently rolled his finger over the ventral side from the tail toward the anus, and a hemipenus popped out! The same action with a female obviously did not produce this result. How could we not have known this in 1940? When was this method of sexing discovered?

: As if to provide a link between the past and present, Roger Conant was autographing books at the show. Roger Conant was an internationally known herpetologist in the old days. and here he was, still at it. He is old in chronological years, but still brilliant and lively. He gave a lecture that night.
: Despite my enthusiasm at the show, I wasn't quite up to keeping reptiles again. I wanted to do so, but I also wanted to be sure that I was willing to do the work necessary to keeping them properly. But, to a limited extent, it happened anyway. We came to a booth swarming with lizards that resembled large American Anoles. They were hatchling Green Iguanas (Iguana iguana). I didn't want to take on the responsibility of getting insects to feed a lizard. But these were largely vegetarians. So we bought Barney.

: In talking to our son and his wife on the Saturday night of the show, my son, who has also had an interest in reptiles (but, like me, knew nothing about the advances in captive breeding), said he would love to have a baby Corn Snake for his 9 year old son. Back to the show we went on Sunday and bought the corn snake. It's great to know that a ready feed source is available today in that many pet shops sell pinkie mice. In the old days we had to raise our own mice. The Corn Snake is growing and doing well.

: After the show I subscribed to reptile magazines and read them avidly. On finding that many reptile scientific names had changed (the Queen Snake has even had its genus changed), I realized that my reptile books are grossly out-of-date. I need to buy some more modern ones. The show had been sponsored by the Maryland Herpetological Society, a part of the Natural History Society of Maryland, and all proceeds went to buy rain forest land. An organization like this must be supported. I immediately sent in my dues to join both organizations.

: Some of the literature on keeping iguanas was troublesome. The heating and lighting requirements, although critical, were readilly accomplished. But the diet requirements are extremely complex, and the consequences of not following them are severe. We used vitamin supplements and calcium supplements with a variety of vegetables and fruits. We did get good results, and Barney grew fast. Then there was more advice in the magazines. Maybe our ratio of calcium to phosphorus was off. Maybe we were feeding too much of something that would inhibit the absorption of calcium. This was getting too complex even for a chemical engineer who considers himself pretty smart. The only solution seemed to be to feed a prepared iguana food which is nominally balanced to all the iguana's dietary needs. Although we liked the idea, Barney did not. He wouldn't touch the first 3 brands we tried. He did taste the fourth, which has a strong fruity odor. Then he started eating it voraciously. This was when Barney was 4 months old. He then started to grow even more rapidly. He has been on this along with vegetables ever since, and has grown very well and has a very muscular build.

: During the year following the rejuvenation of my interest in reptiles, I formulated a very specific plan. The plan was to raise a pair of Corn Snakes and a pair of California King Snakes from hatchling size, and then to breed each pair. I almost rejected the plan several times based on my age (71). Is there time left to accomplish this? I thought back a few years of my friend Ernest, who, at age 70, worked diligently to prepare a bed in which to grow asparagus. His neighbors reminded him of how many years it would take to yield and considered it a foolish endeavour. Ernest's answer was "I'm not going anywhere". I thought "I'm not going anywhere. I'll do it".

: In June of 1994 another incident aided in reviving the reptile interest. My friend Frank Groves (the old timer who had been Curator of Reptiles at the Baltimore zoo) called and said that he and Jack Norman (another old timer) were going on a snake hunt. Frank'invited me to join them. It was great. We found a Black Racer, a Hognose Snake, and a baby Milk Snake (Lampropeltis triangulum triangulum). We didn't take the Black Racer (We knew from the old days that he would be too nervous for captivity). Frank did take the Hognose for display at a nature center and I got the baby Milk Snake. I had to use all the tricks my magazine articles had provided to get that little snake to start eating, and I succeeded.

: My 45-year-old son has had his interest so revived that he called recently and asked if I would join him on a snake hunt, like we used to do in "the old days". We went, and came back dirty, tired, and empty-handed. But we did see 3 snakes, all of which quickly went into thick brush. They were a Garter Snake, a Black Rat Snake, and a very large Copperhead.
: The acquisition of the Corn Snakes and California King Snakes to fulfill my plan was to await the 1994 Mid-Atlantic Reptile Show. But there was the Eastern Herpetological Expo in Pottstown, PA two weeks earlier. My wife and I attended. We acquired the shoe boxes we needed, and I became mesmerized by the California King Snakes. We found what we believe to be a very reliable friendly dealer with numbers of baby California King Snakes, all of which looked extremely healthy. We wanted a pair - but they were all males. We deferred purchase until we could find a female (this took about 2 minutes). We purchased one, and then went back and bought the male.

: Lack of knowledge can cause some regret. At the time we didn't know the difference between the normal phase and the desert phase of the California king snake. Our male is normal phase and our female is desert phase. We know that they are both the same species, and even the same subspecies. So there should be no problem in breeding them. But we do prefer the appearance of the desert phase, and would like to see offspring be desert phase.

: Then came the Mid-Atlantic Reptile Show. We procured heat tape with accessories and 3 baby Okeetee Corn Snakes, 1 male and 2 females.


: I have read so many books and so many magazine articles ( with some variation in advice provided ) that everything I did in raising these snakes has been by concensus, and apparently it has worked. For example, do the snakes need to be 2 1/2 years old to breed or can they be bred at 1 1/2 years? Concensus has indicated that it is best to wait for 2 1/2 years, but that it is possible, if the snakes have grown to relatively large size by 1 1/2 years, to breed them then. This was my goal. I had seen 2 large corn snakes at a show with a sign "Last Year's Hatchlings". I discussed with the dealer how he had done this. His answer was: "You have to power feed them". I really engaged in power feeding. Three days was the normal interval, and, if a snake refused, I pulled every trick I had learned to induce feeding. I weighed the snakes at regular intervals, and have records of fast substantial weight gains. ( I even got a digital readout balance for a birthday present to replace my old triple beam balance with no other purpose in mind beyond weighing snakes. )

: The snakes went into hibernation in November, and came out in March.


: The male California king snake was clearly adult size, but the female appeared too small. This proved to be the case. Efforts to breed did not work.

: All three corn snakes appeared to be adult size, but one female was somewhat larger and fatter than the other female or the male. I went through efforts to breed every three days for about 3 weeks. From my observations, based on everything I had read, results were inconclusive. For one thing, I failed to observe the male rubbing his head along the female's back. But I did observe, in every attempt to breed, an activity about which I had not read. As soon as a female had been brought to the male's cage, both snakes engaged in a twitching motion of their bodies. This was a frenzied fast jerky motion that I had never seen before. As for copulation, this was deceptive. I was looking for the two ventral surfaces to come together in the anus areas, and for them to stay together for at least 5 minutes. This didn't happen. But, on more than one occasion, I observed bodies lined up lenghth-wise so that the anuses lined up, both snakes upright, but with the males tail under the female's just far enough so that one side of his anus could have been contacting the female's. My friend Jack Norman was reassuring, reminding me that this might have been copulation, as it only takes one hemipenus to do the trick.


: On May 7 I observed the smaller female desperately trying to escape from the cage. Back to the books and magazine articles. One reference indicated that this can be a sign of imminent egg-laying. I immediately went out and acquired some sphagnum moss and some vermiculate. Concensus had indicated sphagnum moss for egg laying and vermiculate for egg incubation. I half-filled plastic containers with damp sphagnum moss and cut 1" holes in the tops. I put one such container in each cage. Both females immedately entered their plastic containers.

: At this point I must digress to tell what happened once when we had our 9 year old grandson on a trip to a woods. We looked down and saw a baby ring necked snake. Our grandson gently picked it up. It was the first snake he had ever caught, and the look of joy on his face was most impressive. He ran to my wife with the snake in his hand and said "Nanny, this is the best day of my life". (Unfortunately, as expected, the snake would not eat, and had to be released within a week.)

: It was May 12, Mother's Day. After returning from a celebration with our son's family, my wife went out to water the garden while I tended the snakes. I checked the cage of the smaller female. There were 13 eggs in the plastic container in the smaller female's cage. I was so excited and overjoyed that momentarily I could not move. Then I ran outside and told my wife. She told me that it had to have been the best day of my life, and that my attitude totally paralelled that of our grandson when he found the ring necked snake. While I was preparing a shoe box with vermiculite, my wife checked the cage of the larger female. There were 15 eggs in the plastic contsiner of that snske's cage elso. This was almost too much good news for one day.


: Incubation advice varies widely in the various publications. Concensus indicated a one to one ratio of vermiculate to water by weight with the eggs about half buried in a partially ventilated container. Temperature should be about 82 degrees F. This is the method I tried. I had built an incubator, and temperature control was no problem. Humidity control was another matter. As laid all eggs were pure white and all stuck together. After two days there was some indentation in some of the eggs, worse in the eggs of the larger female than in those of the smaller. It occurred to me immedately that conditions must be too dry. I closed the ventilation holes and sprayed the vermiculite. Indentation progressed, however. Despite spraying, now ( 41 days after laying ) about
: l/4 of the eggs are so badly indented that they can not hatch, another 1/4 are questionable, and the remaining eggs look good. We are hoping for the best.


: Now let's compare the old days with the present. First, regarding snake hunts, there appears to be little difference. There are occasional articles in magazines about modern snake hunts. They resemble our experiences in 1940, and my own recent experiences confirm this. But the situation regarding husbandry and captive breeding is another matter. There has been tremendous progress - and may it continue at an accelerated pace.

: As for me, I have had a great time with renewed reptile interest, and may it continue also.

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