Tag Archive: snakes

What’s going on?

Dear Backyard Zoologist readers,

You’ve probably noticed a huge drop off in posts recently and I wanted to let you know what’s going on. In all honesty, I began this blog over a year ago because I enjoy sharing information and pictures of awesome wildlife. I still do, but at the moment I have a lot of cool but time consuming things going on and creating these posts on a regular schedule is starting to become more of a chore than something I do for fun. So, I’ve decided to only write new posts when the spirit moves me instead of on a regular schedule, to eliminate the dreaded deadline of Monday and Friday. Still, I hope you’ll check in periodically to see what’s new or better yet, sign up for e-mail notifications to let you know when I do post something new.

I still have lots to share…for example, did you know that this animal:


A giant green Anemone. Image taken at Fitzgerald Marine Reserve tidepools in California.

is used as a vertebrate heart stimulant? Or that this animal:


A 9 banded armadillo. Image taken at the San Francisco Zoo.

always gives birth to identical quadruplets? And naturally grows the bacteria responsible for leprosy on its feet? Scientists couldn’t cultivate this bacteria in a lab, so they brought in live armadillos to collect the bacteria to work with.

Or that this animal:

tree shrew

A tree shrew. Image taken at the Oregon Zoo.

Is very smart and has a larger brain size to body mass than humans do?

Or that this animal:


California kingsnake, Kali, my personal companion.

Is called a kingsnake because it eats other snakes, including rattlesnakes and is immune to rattlesnake venom?

Or that these animals:

rock doves

Rock doves, a.k.a. pigeons. Image taken in San Francisco.

are one of the few birds that feed their young a type of milk?

Or that this animal:

marine toad

A marine toad. Image taken at the San Francisco Zoo.

is one of the only toads that will sometimes eat vegetation and dead things? While other frogs and toads want to eat only moving things, this toad is even attracted by dog and cat food left in yards.

Or that this animal:


A lionfish. Image taken at the California Academy of Sciences.

is covered in highly venomous barbs and that dolphins will sometimes grab these fish by their tummies and use them as weapons to catch fish hiding in crevices?


See You Later…



An up close shot of a baby alligator. Image taken at the San Francisco Zoo.

It’s hard to believe I’ve been writing this blog for so long and yet I haven’t written about alligators until today. There are so many cool and amazing things about alligators, a lot of which are adaptations that are so efficient, they have been around in some form for millions of years.

Take the little dots all over their face, which you can see on Lafayette, the alligator shown above. Those little dots can feel vibrations in the water. Obviously this can help them find moving food. But it may also play a role in courtship. When alligators are courting, the males will make a low bellowing sound and blow bubbles and the vibrations these actions make in the water can be felt by other alligators. When they’re courting, they’ll also rub each others backs. Here is a great video of alligators making their bellowing sounds. I know is sounds really ferocious, but this is not the sound to worry about. When an alligator is feeling threatened (and therefore can be dangerous, although very few people are attacked and killed by alligators), they make a hissing sound. Hiss=bad.

I will reiterate, alligators are really not usually aggressive. They are territorial, so you want to leave them their space, but they don’t usually see people as food. We’re too big. It’s crocodiles you gotta watch out for. So…how do you tell the difference? Well, where are you? If you are not in the Southeastern United States or in the Yangtze River in China then you are looking at a crocodile. But if you are in the south east of the U.S., then you can encounter both. Crocodiles are generally going to be much bigger, although a small crocodile and a large alligator will be very close. Crocs will have a narrower snout and at least two of their lower teeth will be visible when their mouth is closed. Alligators have a more rounded snout and their bottom teeth don’t show when their mouth is closed.



Claude, an albino alligator. Notice his "U" shaped snout and the lack of visible bottom teeth. Image taken at the California Academy of Sciences.

Still, my advice is to not get close enough to check out their dentition.

So, humans are not really on the menu for alligators, but as opportunistic carnivores, they will eat just about any appropriate sized meat, including fish, turtles, birds and whatever else they can grab. But, if not eating them for dinner or feeling threatened by them, alligators can sometimes live closely with other animals without any danger. Claude (above) got along quite well with his snapping turtle tank mates. And this baby alligator is enjoying a turtle bed:


alligator and turtles

Alligator Lafayette using his turtle tank mates as a bed. Image taken at the San Francisco Zoo.

While we’re looking at a baby alligator, their is a lot to be said about how these little cuties come about. As reptiles go, the alligator mom is very attentive to her young. She starts by making a nest for them. She makes a nest out of decaying material and in the decaying process it gives off heat. In a sense she makes a natural incubator. Whether or not a young alligator is hatched a male or a female depends on the temperature (one of the concerns about climate change is that it will skew the ratio of males and females for animals with temperature dependent sex determination) they are incubated at. Since the ones at the center of the nest will typically be warmer than those at the outside, this usually leads to a pretty decent mix of males and females. When the young are ready to hatch, they will start making hatching calls that sound like a video game laser or a chirp. They make these sounds while they are still inside of their egg! The sound lets mom know that it’s time to unbury her nest and carry her little hatchlings to the water very gently in her mouth. She will care for her young for up to 2 years after they are hatched, which is very important since there are many predators for a young alligator, including other alligators. If a young alligator makes a distress call, the females in the area that have young will come to the aid of that youngster, whether it’s their young or not.

Lafayette and turtle

Lafayette on his turtle tank mate. Lest you think that the alligator is always on top, I have definitely observed turtles climbing over their alligator tank mates as well. Image taken at the San Francisco Zoo.

This young alligator was not even two years old when this picture was taken. For alligators, that is just a baby. They can live to be 65-80 years old in the care of a zoological facility and even in the wild they are very long lived. And they are survivors. Because they have low energy demands and relatively slow metabolisms they can even go up to 2 years without eating at all, just relying on the stores of fat in their tails. 2 years! These traits plus one other really cool adaptation also gives them the ability to hold their breath in warm water for up to 30 minutes. That other adaptation? Well it’s a little piece of their anatomy that is very special. They breathe and circulate blood pretty much just like we do. They breathe air into their lungs. Blood comes through the lungs to get oxygen and then gets pumped out to the body then back to the lungs, to the body, to the lungs and so on. But their 4 chambered heart (like ours and their relatives the birds but different from other reptiles) has a shunt in it that allows them to bypass their lungs entirely. They can keep recirculating their blood through their body and getting every last bit of oxygen out of it without it going to the lungs to refill. What a cool trick! In fact if you lower the water temperature, because they are cold blooded their metabolism drops even more. The record for an alligator staying under water, albeit in near freezing temperatures was 8 hours! 8 hours without breathing!

Their lungs are no less special than their heart shunt when it comes to assisting them in their aquatic lifestyle. Their lungs, filled with air, provide quite a lot of buoyancy. The alligators use this to their advantage. When they want to dive under the water, they can shift their lungs towards their tail. This lifts their lower regions up and dips their head downwards, giving them the first little dive they need. They can also shift their lungs from side to side, to allow them to roll. If anyone reading this was a fan of the crocodile hunter, you’ll remember him talking about the animal’s “death spiral.” That was achieved by moving their lungs around inside of their chest cavity.


albino alligator

Claude's rock is heated and he enjoys basking on it, especially after a big meal. Image taken at the California Academy of Sciences.

albino alligator and turtle

See I told ya. A turtle climbing on an alligator. Image taken at the California Academy of Sciences.

As well adapted as alligators are, there has been just one force of nature that almost proved to be too strong for them. Yup. You know it. Us. Believe it or not, there was a time when alligator skin purses, belts and boots were super fashionable-to the point where alligators were declared “endangered” even before the Endangered Species Act was passed. Fortunately, protections were put in place and alligator farms were established. These farms were allowed to operate as long as they released at least 25% of their alligators into the wild. With all of the protections in place, alligators flourished again and they are doing really well. Although, they certainly still have some human induced problems…the most interesting one being an introduction of non-native ginormous snakes, Burmese pythons, in Florida. Alligators can eat the young of these snakes but the adult snakes can take on alligators. The fascinating part about it is that alligators, when stressed, can lower their metabolism substantially and reduce their heart rate. When a snake is constricting, and the alligator drops its heart rate to just a few beats per minute, the snake assumes it’s dead and begins to swallow it. However, the alligators sometimes seem to come back from the dead and begin to fight the snakes from the inside out! There have actually been instances where the snake finished eating the alligator and it burst open from the inside! You can see a great video of a partially swallowed alligator fighting back here.

Ball python

Ball python, Cuddles, sticks his tongue out to investigate. Image taken at the San Francisco Zoo.

Cuddles definitely deserved his name. He is a very sweet Ball python.


AAhh! I can never quite reach it! A goat at the West Coast Game Park Safari in Bandon, Oregon.


elephant seal

An elephant seal at Ano Nuevo in California. Ano Nuevo is a protected breeding site for these marine mammals and one of my favorite places to explore nature.

monkey and anteater

The yummy rice milk was meant for Rosie, the anteater. But this mischievous monkey wouldn't let her have it all to herself. Image taken at Pilpintuwasi, in the Amazon rain forest near Iquitos, Peru.

Pilpintuwasi is a fantastic refuge for orphaned and abandoned wildlife. The monkeys are free to come and go, but they usually will stay and hang out here. They are very used to humans. Here’s a link to find out more about Pilpintuwasi.


The curly mouthparts on the butterfly's face is called a proboscis. It unrolls and sucks up food like drinking through a straw. Image taken at Pilpintuwasi, in the Amazon rain forest near Iquitos, Peru.

boa constrictor

The female boa constrictor that has found away to reproduce without mating. Image by Warren Booth.

A female boa constrictor is found to have reproduced without the help of her male counterparts. Despite my catchy title, they are really only half clones-they got two copies of half of her chromosomes, which in my estimation is even more striking than a straight clone. Also, interestingly enough, she wouldn’t do this when there where no males present. Only in the presense of 4 males, none of whom could possibly be the “father,” would she reproduce-without their help. Asexual reproduction is incredibly rare in vertebrates-as far as we know. For a more detailed explation, check out BBC news.

Northern Pacific Rattlesnake

A Northern Pacific rattlesnake. Image taken at the California Academy of Sciences.

Rattlesnakes! Very common and very venomous snakes on the west coast and fascinating reptiles to learn about. Where to begin? I suppose the most common questions I’ve encountered about snakes have to do with their venom and the way they catch and kill food.

Humans are most likely to have problems with rattlesnakes when the snakes are feeling threatened and are defending themselves. Venom is actually very energy expensive to make and not beneficial to the snake to waste, so if a snake is aware of you and it can get away, it is likely to disappear before you’ve even noticed it. But, if you do cross a rattlesnake and it is threatened, usually it will give you a warning by shaking its rattle as a threat. Usually. Young rattlesnakes do not yet have a rattle, and the pieces or “beads” of its rattle will come with each shed. (You can’t actually tell how old a rattlesnake is by its rattle because pieces of the rattle can fall off and the number of sheds a snake has varies.)This fact is most unfortunate, because young rattlesnakes are actually more dangerous than adults. Adult rattlesnakes control the amount of venom they use to try to conserve it, whereas the young don’t hold back venom.

There is another reason why this warning is sometimes absent. Humans are selecting against it. Human fear of rattlesnakes often causes them to kill rattlesnakes when they are discovered. Therefore, the snakes that don’t make their presence known are the ones that are surviving and reproducing. Apparently, the number of rattlesnakes not giving this warning anymore is significantly increasing. So thank you, ignorant humans.

Northern pacific rattlesnake rattle

A Northern Pacific rattlesnake's rattle and its distinctive stripey tail. Image taken at the California Academy of Sciences.

In any case, usually a rattlesnake will rattle and hopefully the creature that stumbled too close respects the warning. If not, the rattlesnake will bite to defend itself. Sometimes the bites are “dry bites,” where the snake bites but does not inject venom. And sometimes they are not. The NIH has some excellent suggestions for how to avoid snake bites and what to do if you are unfortunate enough to get bitten here. My favorite piece of info gleaned from this site? Don’t pick up dead snakes because they can still bite up to an hour after death. ZOMBIE SNAKES!!! (Or a really strong biting reflex.)

So, venom and rattle are a great defense. So great that rattlesnakes even have non-venomous mimics. Gopher snakes have a similar coloration to some types of rattlesnakes and will shake their tail in dry leaves and hiss to mimic the sound and the appearance of a rattle. Rattlesnake defense is very important because far from being top predators, these animals are right in the middle of the food chain. Various birds of prey, especially red-tailed hawks are known to consume these snakes.

Venom does not always work as the best defense, however. Kingsnakes, for example, are immune to rattlesnake venom and will eat rattlesnakes. Ground squirrels are also immune to Northern Pacific rattlesnake venom and will exhibit mobbing behavior, aka ganging up on them. So these animals have a lot to worry about.

But, they are not always the victim. They are also the hunter. Awesome hunters. Rattlesnakes have an extra sense to help them hunt. Take a look at the image below. See the big circular spot under his eye, above his mouth?

Northern Pacific Rattlesnake

A Northern Pacific rattlesnake. Note the circular heat sensing pit. Image taken at the California Academy of Sciences.

This is a heat sensing pit. So, when you hold your hand over a stove, you can tell its hot without touching it right? Well imagine if that sense was so strong, you could feel the body heat of a furry creature at a distance. That’s what that pit does. So, even if the wind is blowing in the opposite direction and the snake can’t smell food, it can still find its prey. Neat, huh? And it uses its venom to hunt as well. This rattlesnake pictured here will bite its prey and let it go, but follow it until the animal stops running. The venom will actually partially digest the animal for the snake before it gets to it.

They’re not just great predators and great defenders, but the Northern Pacific rattlesnake is also one of the few snakes to exhibit any form of “parental care.” That is, young rattlesnakes are allowed to stay with their mother for a few weeks and gain protection from her presence. When its time to hibernate, they follow their mother’s scent trail to the same den year after year. Some of these dens have been occupied for over 100 years!

And one last way that these snakes might surprise you…they are actually great swimmers and have even been found several miles out to sea.

Mummified kitten

Mummified kitten discovered by Julia Reodica. Image taken in Wolf Creek, Oregon.

This kitten has an interesting story with it. Apparently, the previous tenant of our friend Julia Reodica’s former residence was a teacher of the year, who became a drug addict, and then a crazy cat lady. She was institutionalized and the building was cleaned and then Julia and her partner Noah moved in. As Julia was cleaning out her new home, she looked under a drawer and saw this face peaking out at her. She managed to get it out and stored it away. What an awesome specimen to have! And thank you Julia for having the common sense to keep this treasure and for sharing it with us.

shrunken heads

Shrunken heads. Image taken at the Museo Arqueologico in La Serena, Chile.

I know this is not a great photograph, but I had to include it because it is a great subject. Shrinking heads was common in the Andean region in pre-Columbian times. One of the reasons for doing this was to trap the spirit of the enemy so that it could not escape and seek revenge. Check out this website by Golden Chariot Productions for more information on the hows and whys of head shrinking. This site is specifically about the Shuar and is really fascinating.

Blue Whale Skeleton

Skeleton of a blue whale. Image taken at the Seymour Marine Discovery Center in Santa Cruz, California.

This blue whale is an 87-foot female that was found washed ashore. Blue whales are the largest animals that have ever lived, as far as we know. I will definitely be having a post just on blue whales in the future. Here’s another cool shot of just its skull.

blue whale skull

Blue whale skull. Image taken at the Seymour Marine Discovery Center in Santa Cruz, California.

two headed gopher snake

The skeleton of a two-headed gopher snake. Image taken at the California Academy of Sciences.

This snake lived at the Academy for over 22 years. It was definitely a school time favorite. Now its skeleton is on display in the “staff picks” section.

Stained fish skeleton

Stained fish skeleton. Image taken at the California Academy of Sciences.

Last but not least, I thought I’d put in this stained fish specimen. It is not uncommon in science to stain skeletons to allow for better visualization of each and every bone. This one in front of a light is a pretty cool one to see.

As I have been unable to find any kind of scientific consensus on the definitions of “albinism” and “leucism,” I am simply going to call all of these animals “albinos.” But please keep in mind that there are many variations of albinism and how it manifests itself. From the articles I’ve found, it seems that there is even different definitions depending on what taxon you are describing. And so please forgive (or better yet correct!) any errors in claiming these animals to be “true” albinos, as some may fall into a different (although similar) genetic variation.

Claude, the albino alligator

Claude is definitely a true albino alligator. He lives at the California Academy of Sciences.

It is lucky for Claude that he has a home at the California Academy of Sciences because albino alligators don’t survive in the wild. This is due to a number of reasons, the first simply being their complete lack of camouflage.  Alligators have a lot of natural predators, especially when they’re under 4 feet long. Claude probably would have been snatched up as a hatchling. Secondly, Claude has no pigment in his skin to protect him from UV rays and so prolonged exposure to sunlight could potentially be harmful to him. And last but not least, because Claude has no pigment in his eyes, he has severely diminished eyesight. In fact, a closer look below will show how he has a few superficial bruises and cuts on his snout from accidentally bumping into the walls. All of these are reasons why albino alligators don’t survive in the wild. As it is, there are less than 50 albino alligators in the entire world and only .001% of baby alligators are hatched albino. This means that you are substantially more likely to be a human born with albinism than an alligator hatched with albinism.

Claude the albino alligator

A closer shot of Claude. Note the lack of pigment, even in his eyes. Image taken at the California Academy of Sciences.

Now one thing I think is interesting to note, is that not all albinos are white!

Albino and non-albino cornsnakes intertwined

This picture is of an albino cornsnake (the bright orange one with red eyes) intertwined with a non-albino cornsnake. Image taken at the California Academy of Sciences.

“Albino” reptiles are often orange and yellow in color. This is because most of them are amelanistic, or they lack the melanin pigment, but still have their other pigments. (Most mammals don’t have these other pigments, so amelanistic and albino mammals generally look the same.) Many reptile breeders will try to selectively breed albino or “pastel” reptiles.

While we’re on snakes…

Albino kingsnake

La serpiente rey albino. An albino kingsnake. Image taken in a shitty little "Serpentarium" during a festival celebrating Guanacaste Day in Liberia, Costa Rica.

Kingsnakes are probably my favorite type of snake, so despite the location, I was excited to see this guy soaking in a bowl of water.

Now, moving on from reptiles…

Albino kangaroo

This albino kangaroo, Mulali, was born and loved at the San Francisco Zoo.

Lounging about on her grassy bed, I wonder if Mulali appreciates San Francisco’s fog more than her human companions. Well, it might be easier on her eyes, but the sun’s rays can still pass through fog. So zookeepers have to put sunscreen on her ears, which are the areas most vulnerable to UV rays. This results in a wonderfully comedic moment with a zookeeper, bread in hand, attempting to bribe her over to put on her sunscreen, while she plays hard to get. Pure comedy.

Next up, an animal that is known for its beautiful colors, still looks amazing with all white feathers…

Albino peacock

This beauty still has such amazing structure to its feathers, that despite its lack of color, its still stunning. Image taken at the West Coast Game Park Safari in Bandon, Oregon.

albino peacock

A look at the albino peacock's feathers. Image taken at the West Coast Game Park Safari in Bandon, Oregon.

While observing these albino peacocks, it reminded me of images I’ve seen of other peacocks that are not albinos, but lack some pigmentation. I’d thought I’d include it here.


Image stolen from Chi Liu's Flickr photostream.

If you liked this, I do recommend visiting Telegraph.co.uk’s albino animal gallery, with amazing albino animals including everything from snowflake, the albino gorilla, to albino blackbirds and vultures, turtles and rays, squirrels and many more. Enjoy!

So, this is a new category for my blog that is going to have collections of themed animal photos. Enjoy!


How do you clean your nose with no hands? Image taken at the San Francisco Zoo.


This honeybee specimen was pinned with its mouth parts out. Bees use their mouth parts to stick nectar in and out of their mouth to evaporate some of the water, which turns the nectar into honey. So, the next time your eating honey, remember you're eating something that has been in and out of a bees mouth. Image taken at the California Academy of Sciences.


A fruit bat having a good yawn. There are many species of fruit bat and they all play an important role in pollination. In fact, the cocoa tree is pollinated by a bat, so we can thank bats for chocolate! Image taken at the Oregon Zoo.

Red racer coachwhip

This red racer coachwhip is checking us out. Snakes "smell" with their tongue, and having a forked tongue allows them to tell which direction the smell is coming from. Image taken at Zzyzx desert station in southern California.


A mama elk sticks out her tongue while nursing her baby. Image taken in north western California.