Amazing animals: Reptiles

21 October 2020

By Animal Welfare Director Dave Neale

How many reptiles? 

There are over 11,000 reptile species known in the world, and scientists keep discovering more. Reptiles live on every continent except Antarctica. They include crocodiles, lizards, snakes, tortoises and turtles. Reptiles all live on land and are covered in scales, bony plates, or a mix of both. Their skin is certainly not slimy, it is actually cool and dry as they do not have any sweat glands. Reptiles regularly shed the outer layer of their skin, to allow them to grow, and so that the fresh skin underneath can come through. Some reptile species, like snakes, do this in one go, whereas lizards do it in patches.

Cold-blooded animals

Reptiles are very different from mammals, as they cannot regulate their internal body temperature in response to hot or cold temperatures. What they do instead, is move into the sun or shade to warm up or cool down. During the colder parts of the year, they slow their metabolism down and become more inactive. 

All reptiles lay eggs, apart from boas and pythons who give birth to live young. Young reptiles hatch ready for action and can glide, walk, and swim within hours of hatching. 

Reptiles have been around for at least 315 million years and they are among the longest living species on earth, with large tortoises living for more than 150 years, and alligators living for 70 years.

What emotions can reptiles feel? 

There is still lots to learn about just how amazing reptiles are, and scientists have barely begun to scratch the surface in terms of understanding what they are capable of. However, a recent review of the scientific literature found that reptiles are known to be capable of a range of emotions, including anxiety, distress, excitement, fear, frustration, pain, pleasure, stress, and suffering. Reptiles still remain understudied, and so they are likely to be able to experience many more emotions and feelings, they just have not been studied enough yet. 

Playful reptiles

When you think of animals playing, an image of a dog or a kitten may come to mind. Reptiles are not necessarily the obvious choice for a game of fetch. Many reptiles however have been observed playing in different ways, from tugs of war, water play, and interacting with objects.

Crocodiles like to play with pink flowers

Scientists have discovered that crocodiles do in fact play, and furthermore, they prefer to play with small, pink objects like flowers, over other available objects5. The crocodiles were found to push the pink flowers around in the water, carrying them in their teeth, or on the tip of their snout.

Komodo dragons like to play ball

Komodo dragons are the world’s largest lizards. These amazing animals have been known to engage in all types of play. In captivity, they perform complex games with balls, buckets, boxes, and old shoes. When recordings of their play are sped up a bit, they even resemble play in dogs. Komodo dragons have even been known to play tug of war with their keepers over cans and handkerchiefs. 

Turtles can bounce a ball

Aquatic Nile soft-shelled turtles have been observed bouncing basketballs in the water and floating bottles around their tanks. Like Komodo dragons, they have also engaged in games of tug of war with their keepers.

Monitor lizards play with humans

Monitor lizards also like to play with various objects. They manipulate, shake, and carry objects such as rings, buckets, and disks around. They can also form close attachments with their keepers. They have been known to approach their keepers, climb on them, and even solicit rubbing and other types of touch from them.

Snake friendships

A number of snake species are highly social by nature. Grouping together to help to keep warm and to stay moist, living in a group gives each snake better odds of escaping if attacked by a predator, and it also offers individuals the opportunity to develop relationships.

Arizona black rattlesnakes and Garter snakes live in social groups and develop friendships with individual snakes whom they prefer to spend their time with, choosing to be with their ‘friends’ over others within the group. Like us, they seek out social contacts, and they’re choosy about whom they socialize with.

Cooperative snake’s

Cuban boas improve their hunting success by cooperating with each other to catch fruit bats. Taking up positions across a cave mouth at dawn and dusk, the individual snakes take into account the location of other snakes and position themselves in a way as to improve the odds of the pack making a kill.

Motherly snakes

Several species of snakes have been observed exhibiting impressive parental care for their eggs and their young and relationships developing between mothers and young after the young have left the nest.

Lots of species of snakes will stay with their eggs for the first few days, as this will likely increase their survivability, and observations have shown snakes defending and caring for their young after hatching. These behaviours highlight how these animals are more complex than they are often given credit for.

Caring rattlesnakes

Rattlesnakes give birth to live young. Young Arizona black rattlesnakes continue to visit their mother’s den and associate with their mother in the first year of their life. Mothers defend their young from possible predators and observers have witnessed an adult snake deter a baby from exposing themselves to a human predator, even though they were not the baby’s mother. Mothers were also seen to stay close to their young as they first began to explore their surroundings and herding them to safety if they moved too far away, and male rattlesnakes were seen attending the young at nests. 

Timber rattlesnake juveniles and adult females also tend to associate more closely with their relatives at communal dens and rookeries

Rattlesnake adults also provide a much needed source of heat to their youngsters, with babies piling onto adults to obtain their heat as well as additional protection from predators.

These nurturing and defense behaviours have also been observed in adults that are not the youngsters’ mothers suggesting that non-maternal adults adopt a babysitting role to care for others’ young.

These behaviours are a direct contrast to what was initially expected, as snakes are generally thought to exhibit little if any maternal care and responsibility. The help from the unrelated snake may also be the reason why rattlesnakes tend to spend more of their time in groups rather than alone, as they can benefit from helping one another.

Maternal giants

Southern African pythons are also known to be excellent mothers. Typically around 16 feet in length, these huge snakes show caring qualities when it comes to their young. They lay around 40—50 eggs, and when they hatch, the babies are often timid, staying in their eggs for up to two days, whilst their mother continues to coil protectively around them. If a human approaches, the mother will dart towards her hole, and will even show aggressive behaviour towards the threat. 

The maternal care and the social nature shown by snakes demonstrates how complex their lives are, and these observations may just be the tip of the iceberg when it comes to their complex lives.

Most turtle species lay their eggs in a perceived safe place, bury them in the sand for protection and as far as we are aware play no further role in the raising of the young.  But recent research has demonstrated that at least one species, the giant South American river turtle, also known as the Arrau Turtle, does take parental care of their offspring, communicating with its hatchlings whilst they are still in the egg, after they hatch and when they reach the water. 

Maternal turtles

The giant South American river turtle is the largest freshwater turtle in South America.  It is one of the most social species of turtles, individuals migrate together, they nest communally, and they hatch in large numbers together.

The giant South American river turtles use clicks and clucks to call to their hatchlings whilst they are still inside the egg, this is thought to help stimulate the group to emerge all at once. 

But unlike other turtle species that hatch en masse, giant South American river turtles receive the parental care of their mothers as soon as they reach the water.  The mums wait in the area where they have laid their eggs for up to two months, and once ready they start calling out to the babies. Once the two generations meet up, they migrate together from the beach back to the river’s flooded forests.

As of yet this is as far as our knowledge extends with regards to the extent of their relationship, but it is likely that with an ability to recognise each other individually, relationships between mother and offspring may well continue as the young grow.

Reptiles really are amazing animals!

Reptile welfare

Reptiles are popular pets around the world, and unfortunately they often suffer greatly in captivity. Most reptile owners are unaware of the complexity of their pet reptile, and unhelpful assumptions, such as them being unthinking and unfeeling, can mean that their needs are unintentionally neglected.

Reptiles are wild animals and are therefore not suited to a life in captivity. People often wrongly think of reptiles as simple animals, who do not need much space or environmental complexity. This means that reptiles are wrongly kept in cramped tanks and suffer a lifetime of boredom. Reptiles are far more complex than people realise, some are highly social, and many show signs of complex intelligence.

Before reptiles even make it to someone’s home as a pet, they may have already endured significant suffering. Many reptiles in the pet-trade are still wild-caught. This means that they have been snatched from the wild, and then transported several times, stored, and processed before being sold as a pet. This process can cause considerable suffering through stressful physical handling and injuries during capture, and then further stress and considerable rates of mortality during the transportation, storage and processing. 

Even reptiles who have been captive-bred still experience many of the same issues. Captive-bred reptiles are subjected to unnatural conditions associated with intensive rearing, packaging, and transportation7. Mortality rates are also very high for captive-bred reptiles, and they can reach levels of 80%

Reptiles are amazing animals, but they belong in the wild. 

To find out more about the exotic pet trade, visit: Wildlife Conservation Research Unit

Reptile conservation

Reptiles have been overlooked when it comes to conservation, as only around half of the species have been assessed in terms of their conservation status. When researchers looked at a representative sample of reptile species, they estimated that approximately 1 in 5 species are at risk of extinction

The main threats to reptiles are a loss of habitat and wild harvesting. Reptiles are taken from the wild for the pet trade which is both legal and illegal, depending on the species. Reptiles are also subject to a loss and degradation of their habitats. Other threats include invasive species, pollution, disease and climate change. 

To find about more about reptile conservation visit these sites: 

EDGE of Existence

International Reptile Conservation Foundation


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