The Language of Love: Breeding Behavior in Reptiles and Amphibians – January 2013

By Erin Lane


For most of the country, it’s the middle of winter.  Cold storms are moving through, the thermostat is turned up on the furnace, and going out in anything less than a parka is out of the question.  Your herps, however, are likely blissfully unaware—either because they are basking in their own temperature controlled enclosure, or because they are sleeping it out until the Spring.  This doesn’t mean though that they aren’t getting prepared for breeding season.  As your temps start to warm up here in the next month, your pets will be undergoing physiological changes that will prepare them for breeding season.

Whether you have snakes or frogs, monitors or turtles, most of their wild counterparts have a well defined period of time when the conditions are just right for procreating.  In the tropics, this may be the start of the rainy season.  For creatures living in the temperate zones (which is most of the U.S.), this means the beginning of warmer days and milder weather.

This is also the time that most of our pet reptiles and amphibians begin to gear up as well.  The means of communicating the readiness to breed is different from species to species, but there are some common types of communication when advertising love.  As we get ready for springtime here at the Reptile Times, we will be discussing the many ways in which our ectothermic (aka ‘cold blooded’) animals attract and choose mates.

Green Tree Frogs like this one are found throughout the East Coast of the US

Part I: Auditory Announcements

Although we initially rely pretty heavily on appearance when attracting or finding a mate, many species would find all of this primping and grooming a waste of time.  For most anurans (frogs and toads), the voice is often the most important tool to attract a mate.  But why?  What is the benefit of vocal communication, and how can that help to find a suitable partner?

Well, think about the areas in the world that have the highest densities of anurans.  These are wet places with dense vegetation, such as rain forests.  Even if you have good eyesight, it won’t help you to find other small, cryptically colored frogs hiding out under leaves and in small pools of water.  With so much thick foliage, it won’t do much good to see well.

Chorus Frogs, like this one, get their name from the distinctive calls they are known for making

Picky listeners

Sound, on the other hand, carries far, even when visual barriers are present.  Having a strong voice means that you can be heard over a greater distance, thereby increasing the number of listeners (and potential mates).  As for most animals, it is the males that do the majority of calling.  Females tend to be choosy since they typically have a very limited number of reproductive opportunities in a given season.  Making eggs is taxing, and, depending on the species, they may only have one opportunity to have their eggs fertilized.  In that case, finding a mate becomes a choice that could be the difference between their genes getting successfully passed on to the next generation, or not at all.  If the chosen male doesn’t pass on good strong genes to your offspring, they may not live long enough to have offspring of their own.

Males, on the other hand, typically have a very different take.  Where females are all about quality, males are all about quantity.  Unlike females that produce large, energetically costly eggs, males make millions of small, energy efficient sperm.  In most cases, the number of females they can breed with is dependant primarily on how many they can convince.  So when it comes to attracting a mate, males are usually the ones with the tougher job.

Size matters

You have likely heard the saying “appearances can be deceiving,” but it’s hard in the animal world to disguise a voice.  Vocalizations, or calls, are usually closely tied with the size of the animal making them.  For example, a small frog can’t make a deep call, just like a snare drum will never sound as big and deep as a base drum (think of an American bull frog versus a chorus frog).  It’s all about the size of the instrument, and it’s hard, if not impossible, to alter a call enough to trick a discerning ear.

But why is being bigger important?  It isn’t always, but being bigger usually means that the male is older, has more access to food, or both.  If a male lived long enough to become big and can make a nice booming call, it likely has good genes that have allowed it to find food and escape predators.

Standing out in the crowd

Often times, males stay put and call while the females seek out the one they wish to breed with.  In some species, the males form a lek, which is essentially a gathering place where they can show off for females.  The females come to the lekking spot, and can suss out which male would be best to breed with.  In some cases, the mere act of being able to participate in the lek is the only qualification a male needs to attract a mate.  Males that live long enough to make it there every season are usually those that are higher quality, and therefore suitable for a choosy female.  In other species, females will find vocalizing males from a distance, led on by the sound of their call.  Only males that have strong, attractive calls will be sought after, meaning that males with less attractive ones will be left singing to themselves.

An important point to make here is that every species will have its own particular call structure and/or frequency.  Ideally, females will only be attracted to the call of their own species.  If they weren’t, it would be a waste of their time, and they wouldn’t be likely to reproduce.  They are tuned in, so to speak, to the vocalizations of their own kind, and discern between calls that are within certain acoustic parameters.  Some of them within those parameters just happen to be more or less attractive.

This is an important element in vocal communication because of possible interference from other species.  In your mind, go to that lush rain forest with all of those frogs.  Think of how many species there are, and how that might sound.  Pretty confusing, for an animal that is relying on sound to find a mate.  Animals need to be able to ‘filter out’ the sounds of other species, and focus in on those of their own.  Not an easy task for us, perhaps, but one that comes naturally to even the most inconspicuous little frog.

This little Chorus Frog was caught in a surprise spring snowfall – he hopped away to sing another day!

Curtain call

As the country begins to thaw out in the next few months, we will start to see our reptiles and amphibians perk up, and get into breeding mode.  This is the time of year that is often most rewarding to serious herp breeders and casual hobbyists alike.  Your pets begin to wake up, eat more, and, often times, start looking for a mate.  The way they do so depends on the species, and it can make for truly interesting behavior.

Although we rely heavily on sight when finding a potential mate, many animals use other senses to discern a good partner.  For frogs and toads, it’s all about the voice.  A call that sounds out over the rest is sometimes the most enticing attraction for a female, making it a male’s most important asset.  However, sound is not the only way that animals communicate and find mates.  Next month we will be discussing how some species use chemical cues to find and attract each other.  In the mean time, keep an ear out for local frogs and toads as they get ready to sing their hearts out in search of springtime partners.

Captive Husbandry of the Fire Skink – January 2013

By Jennifer Greene

Fire skinks, or Riopa fernandi, are arguably some of the cutest lizards out there.  With big, doe-like eyes set on a cute little face, bright colors and little legs on a long body, they are capable of making even non-reptile lovers squeal about how cute they are.  Their common name arises from the vivid red coloration on their sides, which connects to red strips down the side of their neck and up into bright red cheeks.  They typically have a black base color with a white checkered chin, and their backs are often a golden tan, with some individuals having a redder color instead.  They are on the smaller end in size, with mature adults reaching between 14 and 20” depending on tail length.   Their relatively small adult size compared to other pet lizards, in combination with their adorable faces and ease of care, make them quite delightful pets to keep.  Captive bred skinks can be downright outgoing, often coming out to see their owners and check for more food.  As rewarding as these little skinks can be, they are not often kept, or not kept for extended periods of time.  They are seen as either too difficult for the beginner (not the case!) or too basic for the more experienced keeper.  My hope is to help the beginner embrace these adorable creatures, and to highlight the rewards of keeping them to encourage more herpers to give them a shot.

Fire skinks can regrow their tail, much like this captive bred baby is doing!

Most fire skinks available to reptile keepers today are wild caught in origin, with most originating from a handful of countries in West Africa, often the same countries that baby ball pythons come from.  A small number of keepers have successfully bred their fire skinks (myself included), so captive bred babies can be available on occasion – it just takes patience sometimes to find them.  Wild caught skinks are not usually difficult to get acclimated to captivity, especially when set up properly and given time to settle in.  Captive bred babies do tend to be more outgoing than their wild caught cousins, but regardless of your skink’s origins, their care is the same.

I prefer to keep them in a relatively large cage, as they can be extremely active and will utilize all the space.  You can maintain one or two in a cage as small as a 20 long, but I highly recommend a cage at least 36” x 16” x 16”.  I keep my adult pair in an ExoTerra terrarium that measures 36” long by 24” tall by 18” deep, and I routinely see them using the entire cage.  In a cage like the ExoTerra one that I use, you can offer them a nice thick layer of substrate to burrow into, which they will love.  I use a combination of cypress mulch, Eco Earth, and orchid bark to achieve a nice, natural looking appearance that maintains humidity well and does not require frequent changing of the substrate.  I check the cage daily for feces, and once a week stir up the bedding and add fresh water to keep it moist.

I rarely actually see my skinks in their water bowl, but I do find fresh feces in the bowl about every other day.  Because they are prone to pooping in their water dish, I prefer to offer them a bowl big enough for them to climb into, and for mine I use a ZooMed Large Corner Dish.  I furnish their cage with a variety of items for them to climb on and around, and they really seem to love clambering up inside of cork tubes to bask under the lights.  I have a large tube on each side of the cage, and a few large and medium pieces of cork flats piled throughout their cage.  In addition, I added some fake vines to provide some foliage in the cage and visual barriers for them.  Using fake or live foliage helps make the cage look a little nicer, and provides cover for your skinks to hide behind and feel safe within their cage.  You may even see them peeking out at you from under the leaves!

One of the most important things about skink housing is something that doesn’t even get placed directly in the cage, but instead over the top: lighting!  As terrestrial skinks, these little critters don’t require exceptionally intense heat or light, but they do need heat and UVB provided during the day.  In the large cage that I use, a 100 watt powersun bulb provides all the basking light and UVB, and to illuminate the rest of the cage I use the new ExoTerra Ion bulbs.  I really like using the Powersun bulb on larger cages to provide heat and UVB, as the skinks really seem to thrive with the ability to get close to the light as needed.  The new ExoTerra Ion bulbs are nice, extremely bright bulbs that do not put out measurable amounts of UVB, making them ideal for illuminating reptile cages that already have a source of UVB.  Putting too many UVB lights on one cage has the potential to irritate the eyes of yourreptiles, and does not give them the option to escape UVB exposure if they feel the need to.  The Ion bulbs are super bright, and that in combination with their low cost makes them ideal for illuminating just about any cage you have.


My favorite bulb for most diurnal reptiles – the fantastic Powersun!

Basking temperatures can reach up to 95 degrees Fahrenheit as long as the cool side remains below 80 degrees.  How you achieve these temperatures is up to you; I use only the Powersun bulb in my cage during the day, and at night my skinks have a 75 watt infrared bulb to keep cage temperatures from dropping too low.  Exactly what wattages you use for your own cage at home is something you may need to tinker with to get it just right.  A warmer home (75 to 80 degrees) will not require as hot of a basking light, nor would it need a night time heat source.  A cooler home (65 to 70 degrees) would probably require higher wattage bulbs.  Using a thermostat or rheostat to help monitor temperatures within the range you prefer can make your life much simpler, rather than switching out multiple wattages depending on the time of year.  I also use a Zilla Power Center Digital Timer, which makes my life immensely easier because it switches all my lights on and off on its own.  All the lights are automated, which just leaves the daily maintenance to cleaning out the water and feeding my skinks!

Feeding your skinks can be one of the most enjoyable aspects of their care – they are often very enthusiastic feeders, and readily consume most live feeder insects.  The staple of the diet can consist of primarily crickets and mealworms, with full grown adult skinks easily consuming 1” crickets, giant mealworms, or superworms.  In addition, I highly recommend including roaches in your skink’s diet.  Mine happily eat dubia and hissing cockroaches, and I do not doubt that they will consume just about any species you can order online or find at your nearest reptile expo. Waxworms, reptiworms, silkworms, and hornworms all can and should be added to your skink’s diet whenever possible, as the variety in their diet will help your skinks grow and thrive their best.  On top of all that, they will often also eat canned insects, such as canned caterpillars, grasshoppers, and even snails, so there is no excuse for not providing a varied diet for your lizards!

Adult Skinks can easily eat superworms

Waxworms are good treats to feed occasionally too

Illustrating the size difference between regular mealworms and giants – both are acceptable food items!

Whenever offering live insects, it is also important to dust them with a high quality reptile calcium and/or multivitamin.  I use and highly recommend either the ZooMed Reptivite (with D3 for lizards kept indoors), or the Repashy Calcium Plus, as both have a great balance of calcium, multivitamins and vitamin D3.  While you may be making quite the effort to provide your skinks with as varied a diet as possible, it does not come close to approaching the dozens or hundreds of different insects and small animals they would consume in the wild.  For this reason, it is important to dust your skinks’ food at least every other feeding, or as per the instructions on your calcium or multivitamin supplement.

When it comes to handling your skinks, it really depends on your skink and how well it reacts to your presence.  This is where it can pay off to pick up a captive bred baby, as they are often already well-accustomed to human interaction and handling.  Certain long term captive skinks mind it less than others as well, and even originally skittish skinks can become habituated to their owners with time.  The key is patience and time: feeding your skinks well and letting them get used to you for several weeks or months will give them time to settle in and learn that you are not going to harm them.  Once they are well established and feeding well for you, you can attempt to coax them out or handle them for short periods of time.  Not all skinks enjoy handling, especially at first, and they can be extremely squirmy and fast, so you may want a spotter around for the first few handling sessions in case your skink escapes!  Most skinks are perfectly happy if they are rarely, if ever, handled, so do not feel as though you need to handle your skinks for them to do well.  If anything, they would probably love to be left alone entirely, and instead will come out to check out their surroundings and watch what is happening outside their cage.

Any of these supplements are suitable for your skinks!

Calm, confident handling is key to teaching your skink to accepting human interaction!

Fire Skinks are cute, brilliantly colored little lizards that can be incredible pets for the keeper looking for a smaller species of lizard to display in their home.  Their sturdiness and ease of care coupled with how frankly adorable they are makes it hard not to love them as a fantastic beginner lizard or fun side project for the experienced keeper.  Breeding them is also fairly easy and straightforward, and once established they can be extremely prolific.  Check back with us next month to see a Breeding Spotlight take you through step by step on how to condition, breed, incubate, and raise Fire Skinks of your own!

The Basking Spot: Installing Under Tank Heaters – December 2012

The Basking Spot

By Jonathan Rheins

Practical Guide to Undertank Heat Pad Installation

Undertank heating pads (UTH) are one of the most efficient and reliable tools for providing heat to reptileand amphibian enclosures.  Some varieties are self-adhesive, and bond directly to the glass terrarium bottom.  Heating pads of this variety conduct heat directly to the enclosure floor and substrate. 
When properly installed and used, an undertank heating pad can last the life of the terrarium.  In this brief article, the steps for proper pad installation will be detailed.  The terrarium in the accompanying photos is aCreative Habitat 5RT Glass Cage and the pad being installed is a Zoo Med Mini Reptitherm Heat Pad.
Once the size and type of pad have been selected, the terrarium can be prepared.  It is typically much easier to effectively install a heating pad on an empty terrarium.  Trying to orient the pad properly and ensure good contact is difficult without full access to the terrarium bottom.
The glass of the terrarium bottom should be thoroughly cleaned prior to installation.  A good all-purpose glass cleaner will do, and a quick wipe with isopropyl alcohol will remove any traces of dirt, grease, or oils that could affect the pad’s adhesive over time.
Determine before you begin where you will locate the pad and in what orientation it will sit.  Once the pad makes contact with the glass, it is quite difficult to remove, so be sure to have run a few “test fits” before going any further.
heat pad sticking
The adhesive on the pad itself is exposed by peeling off the back paper covering of the heating pad like a big sticker.  Rest one short edge of the pad along the glass and then, using a rolling motion, gently “roll” the pad onto the glass. Just enough pressure should be used, and care must be taken to not overly bend or crease the pad itself.
Once in place, the pad can be firmly pressed down onto the glass, paying close attention to the corners and around the power cord.  An added benefit of installing on an empty tank is the ability to peek through and see where the pad is or is not making good contact.
heat pad feet
The last step is to install the included plastic “feet” to the bottom corners of the terrarium.  These tiny bumpers attach permanently to the molding of the terrarium and effectively raise it up off the surface it is resting on by ¼” or so.  This gap allows for easy exit of the power cord from beneath the terrarium, and also allows excess heat to escape, preventing malfunction or overheating.

Basic Ball Python Breeding: Using a Punnett Square – December 2012

By Jennifer Greene

Ball Pythons have some of the most diverse and beautiful combinations of mutations that affect their color and pattern.  In the last 10 years, the number of genetically inherited traits that we have discovered in ball pythons is easily several dozen of single, simple traits, with the combination of those traits easily numbering into the hundreds.   For the average person just beginning to scratch the surface of ball python breeding, learning about all the morphs and mutations, and all the fancy names for them, can seem extremely daunting.  When you own morphs and are trying to create new ones, or just figuring out what you could potentially hatch out when you breed together animals carrying different traits, it can seem nearly impossible to memorize all the possible combinations and outcomes.  Fortunately, you don’t need to memorize the hundreds of combinations; instead, you can use a formula called a Punnett Square to predict your chances of hatching out specific types of offspring.  Using a punnett square properly will enable you to figure out potential offspring for any possible combination of traits.

In this article, it’s my goal to help you understand how to use a simple punnett square.  To learn how to combine two, three, or more traits in a punnett square, I highly recommend picking up The Complete Ball Python, which has two excellent chapters on punnett squares that will help you out.  In addition, search online for a free tutorial on genetics to help you out, or even consider enrolling in a basic biology course for a more thorough understanding.  Next month’s article will cover basic breeding principles such as inbreeding, line breeding, outcrossing, and their relevance in reptile breeding programs over the short and long term.

First, let’s talk about recessive traits.  These traits are only visible when an animal has two copies of the gene, one from each parent.  Some examples of recessive traits are clowns, piebalds, ghosts, and the various types of albinos.  Understanding how to predict your clutches is fairly easy  – use that punnett square! It’s a fairly simple method of determining probability per egg of what could hatch out.

Below I’ve drawn a simple square – for any single recessive trait, this is all you need to do to determine your chances of hatching out each baby.  For punnett squares, the use of capital and lowercase letters indicates which gene is dominant over another.  In recessive mutations, the normal type is going to be dominant over the recessive trait, so the capital letter A is going to mean the normal gene, while the lower case a means the recessive trait – albino for this example.  Each trait has two copies of the gene, so when writing out the genes of an animal, you’ll always use two letters – a het albino would be Aa, and an albino would be aa, and a normal would be AA.

Along the top of your square, put one of the parents.  In our example, we’ll have a het albino breed with an albino.  Up top, I’ll have the het albino parent (which gender they are doesn’t matter).  Along the side goes another parent (again, gender doesn’t matter for this), and this one will be the albino.  Each box gets 1 letter.

When you carry down the letters to fill in the box, you’ll see that you get two possible outcomes – Aa, het albinos, and aa, albinos.  Since one of the parents was an albino, all normal looking babies are going to be het albinos.  You might be asking about what happens when you breed two het albinos together… Well, this is what that punnett square would look like:

Punnet Square Two

You see that there are now 3 types of outcomes.  AA, or completely normal babies, Aa, or het albino babies, and aa, or albino babies.  The albino babies will be easy to pick out when they hatch, but what about the normal and het babies?  They both have at least one copy of the normal gene, which means they will look totally normal.  This situation is how possible hets are made.  Since there is no visible difference between a normal ball python and a het albino ball python, instead many breeders will sell the offspring at a discounted price compared to guaranteed hets, and call them 66% hets.  The 66% refers to the probability of each normal looking baby being a het – it’s a short hand way of saying that the normal babies have a 66% chance of being het for albino.  Buying these kinds of hets is a kind of calculated gamble, but can be a great way to score some hets for a discounted price.   There are hets sold as smaller percents, such as 50% hets and 33% hets, and the same kind of short hand applies. Any time there is a percent in front of the word het, what should be referred to is the percent chance of that animal being het.

Ball Pythons are one of the most rewarding species to breed for fancy morphs because so many of the morphs are visible in the first generation.  These morphs are referred to as codominant in the reptile hobby, although technically the term is inaccurate (it’s been noted that the correct term should be incomplete dominant).  Codominant morphs have a “super” form, which is when an animal has two copies of the trait.  To show you in the form of a punnett square, writing out codominant traits is a little different than recessive.  The capital letter in this case is the trait that is more dominant, so for a pastel, refers to the pastel trait, while is the normal gene.  We’ll write up a punnett square to describe breeding a pastel to a pastel.

Punnett Square Three

Three potential combinations occur – normal babies, pp, more pastels, Pp, and super pastels, PP.  Another term for super pastels is homozygous pastel, meaning that they have two copies of the pastel gene.  A simpler definition for homozygous is same, meaning that the genes are the same, while heterozygous means mixed, or the genes are not the same.  For some codominant traits, the homozygous form may look nothing like the heterozygous form.   Lessers, Butters, and Mojaves are an example of this – they are all the heterozygous form of a blue eyed leucistic snake.  Yellowbellies are the heterozygous form of the ivory ball python, and fires are the heterozygous form of the black eyed leucistic.  Many codominant mutations have a homozygous (or super) form that looks like an extreme version of the heterozygous form, and when new mutations come out, discovering what the super expression looks like is one of the most exciting aspects of proving out the morph.

Fortunately for ball python breeders, the majority of ball python morphs are codominant, meaning that in the first generation of offspring you should see some babies that are visible morphs.  This makes them extremely gratifying for the beginner, as you see results relatively quickly.  There are also a handful of morphs that for all intents and purposes, are dominant traits, meaning that there is no super form.  Dominant traits express the same regardless if the animal has one or two copies of the gene.  Spider ball pythons and Pinstripe ball pythons could both be considered dominant, although popular opinion on spider ball pythons is still inconclusive as to whether or not a “super” form exists.  Generally speaking, it is frowned upon to breed spider x spider or pinstripe x pinstripe, as it can result in weaker or misshapen offspring that often do not thrive.  In addition, many do not see any real benefit to that breeding, as your chances for producing more morphs per clutch do not increase significantly.  I’ll create the punnett square for you to look at the pairing and the results.  We’ll do a pinstripe x pinstripe, with P indicating the pinstripe gene, and p indicating normal.

Punnet Square Four

So, as you can see we get slightly increased odds of hatching out a pinstripe per egg.  Instead of a 50% chance of each egg having a pinstripe in it (as would be the case when breeding a pinstripe to a normal), you have a 75% chance per egg of hatching out a pinstripe.  However, that 75% actually breaks down into a 50% chance of a regular, or heterozygous pinstripe (only one copy of the pinstripe gene) and a 25% chance of a homozygous, or super, pinstripe.  Now, pinstripes don’t have a super form that looks different from the form with only one copy of the gene.  This means that when you create a homozygous pinstripe, you will not be able to tell it apart from your heterozygous pinstripes.

Why does it matter if you can tell a homozygous pinstripe apart from a heterozygous pinstripe, you ask?  Because when you raise up that baby homozygous pinstripe and breed it to anything else, it will always produce pinstripes!  That makes it a valuable addition to a breeding project, although not visually more interesting than any other morph.  Morphs that are genetically homozygous will always produce offspring that are morphs, which is why they generally fetch a higher price and can be considered more valuable to breeding projects.  For a pet, there is no difference or benefit to getting a morph beyond appearance, so make your decision on a pet snake based on what you find the most visually appealing.  When it comes to pet snakes, the genes behind their appearance are only as important as you want them to be.

There is one last type of morph that is available, and often quite a steal for a fancy looking pet snake, and that’s the “non-genetic” morphs.  Labyrinths, Jungles (not to be confused with pastels, which are sometimes archaically referred to as pastel jungles), and a handful of other unique looking ball pythons are different in appearance than a normal ball python, but genetically they are no different.  While many folks refer to these snakes as “non-genetic” morphs, that is a bit of a misnomer, as appearance is always to a certain extent controlled by the genes of the animal (thus, genetic).  However, these morphs are not inheritable, or passed on from one generation to the next.  If you were to breed a Jungle ball python to a normal, you would get entirely normal babies, with no increased likelihood of hatching more jungles.  Occasionally, when temperatures fluctuate greatly during incubation, pattern or color can be affected: I personally have seen a clutch of extremely unique looking pastels with scrambled and reduced pattern that were the result of some accidental and extreme temperature fluctuations during incubation.  They were very pretty, but their unique appearance was not a trait they were able to pass on to their offspring.

In closing, I just want to emphasize again the importance of selecting snakes to add to your collection that you enjoy and want to keep.  If breeding, especially on a larger scale, is your goal, then consider taking a basic course on genetics (there are numerous free tutorials online).  The punnett square is an extremely useful tool for understanding odds and probabilities for certain crosses, but remember that each punnett square is calculating your odds per egg, not per clutch, and does not tell you the guaranteed outcome of each breeding.  It is a helpful tool to see possibilities, and not a fortune telling device.

10 Questions with Philippe de Vosjoli – December 2012

Philippe de Vosjoli

By Scott Wesley

Philippe de Vosjoli is an innovator in the reptile industry, a highly respected author of most of the main care books used in the industry, a breeder and so much more as we will find out in this interview!

1. We typically start off our interviews with this same general question.  Can you tell us what got you started into reptiles, and what was your first reptile or reptile experience that got you hooked?

 From the time I was very young I always had an attraction to nature. When I was in France, a period where I spent four and half years in a Catholic boarding school, I would stop during my weekend visits to Paris to a little pet store run by a former keeper at the Jardin des Plantes. He had these large mixed species vivaria at the back of his store that housed things like leopard geckos, giant day geckos, flat rock lizards, monkey tree frogs all in the same enclosure. In other tanks he had Malagasy dwarf chameleons, carpet chameleons and other species I can’t remember. Those visits made me realize there’s a wonderful mysterious natural world to be discovered. I was hooked.

2. You wrote most of the original reptile “care” books used by almost every breeder out there today, and care information / research is always changing. Looking back – what were a few things that you maybe had written back in the day that don’t apply today or opinions have since changed on the care, products, etc?

I wouldn’t change much. I think that excess oral vitamin supplementation, particularly vitamin D3, is a problem with many species, such as chameleons, various treefrogs and geckos. I wasn’t as aware of that when I first wrote care books and it took time and experiment to figure that out. I’ve been criticized for advocating feeding any amount of animal protein to green iguanas but I still don’t believe that feeding insects to juveniles and the occasional mouse to adults is harmful. One study showed that in one area adult iguanas were significant predators of juveniles. One of the biggest problems with green iguanas and all larger reptiles is providing enough heat. A proper heat level optimizes metabolic rate which will affect growth, health, and the rate of clearing of uric acid through the kidneys.

3. Personal note from the interviewer. In college – I wrote a paper on the American Federation of Herpetoculturists (AFH) for one of my Poly Sci classes (seriously). Is this something you were glad to part ways with (meaning too much work / not enough reward), or wish it had grown to be the industry leader for lobbying our interests, and have you ever thought about bringing back another industry magazine like The Vivarium?

The AFH and the Vivarium were founded by herpetoculturists whose primary goal was to represent the accomplishments and interests of private hobbyists. It wasn’t a commercial venture and the original founders all worked for free on weekends and in the evenings to get it off the ground. We were the first to publish a nationally distributed color magazine dedicated to the keeping of amphibians and reptiles and tested the grounds for the viability of this kind of publication. We also were involved in fighting unsound restrictive legislative proposals and in developing standards for responsible care. The involvement of large corporations in the pet industry had dramatic effects on the distribution of books and magazines. We were not able to compete against these large entities. I worked part time for free for 13 years as president of the AFH and contributor to the Vivarium and put in tens of thousands of dollars to keep it going. Looking back I’m not sure the effort and the financial and personal costs were worth it. I think Reptile and Herp Nation are doing a good job at filling the herp magazine niche. Starting another herp magazine is out of the question for me.

4. How is the work coming on the New Caledonian Geckos updates – and anything really exciting or new that we can look forward to in these books?

The gargoyle gecko book is now ready to go to press. It should be available at the beginning of 2013. I also have a book co-authored with Frank Fast and Allen Repashy, The Life of Giant Geckos, in the works that focuses on the natural history, social behaviors and herpetoculture of leachianus. I presented some of this information with Allen Repashy on Gecko Symposium at the 2011 National Breeder’s Expo in Daytona, an event hosted by Exo-Terra. The talk can be seen online ( but the book contains a wealth of additional information. Chahoua will be the next project we’ll be working on.

5. You are a leader in the captive reptile breeding world. Can you tell us a few of the species that you were the first, or one of the first to work with and breed here in the US?  Also – what species are you most proud of that you were able to produce in captivity?

I bred my first leopard geckos in 1968.  As far as I know I was the first to breed the Malagasy giant water skinks (Amphiglossus waterloti) and reveal they were a species transitional to becoming ovoviviparous. I had bred the Okinawan viper (Ovophis okinavensis) in the 70s, which is another species that is evolving toward being live-bearing. With Bob Mailloux we did several first captive breedings including Chacoan horned frogs, walking frogs (Kassina leonardi, Kassina maculata), Rana ishikawae, Chilean wide mouth frog (Caudiverbera caudiverbera) and more recently Caatinga horned frogs (Ceratophrys joazeirensis). My last cutting edge snake breeding was producing leucistic puff-faced watersnakes (Homalopsis buccata) With Frank Fast we were the first to breed crested geckos, at least in the US. That showed that unlike the museum specimens that all had pointy tail nubs, crested geckos originally hatched with well developed tails.

6. You are writing a novel as well?  Can you tell us a bit about it, and what inspired you here?

My inspiration came in part from a book I was working on with Terence McKenna before his death.  In a computer model based on information shown to him during an experience with hallucinogens in Peru, we reach an end point where life as we have known it is no more.  He speculated over the years what the end point could be and his views changed from being apocalyptic to the creation of a time machine and toward the end, a technological singularity. The singularity is the point where computing entities exceed human intelligence. As a consequence, what they do becomes no longer comprehensible to us. They are as gods. According to theorists the singularity should occur sometime between 2020 and 2030. My novel is set in this time period. There are no herps in the book but bioengineered Australian blue crayfish (a species I work with) play a mind altering role.

7. You have worked with some really amazing reptiles, and some really common ones too (like pacman frogs). What is your favorite reptile/amphibian you are currently working with (either working with new morphs, or just your favorite) and why that one?

That’s a difficult question because there are so many species I like and I don’t rank them in terms of favorites. If I were to pick one species, the giant gecko/leachianus remains the one species that continues to fascinate me and that I plan on studying and keeping until I die. The way I’m wired it’s one species to which I do not habituate. Every day working with them my mind goes “Fantastic! Fantastic!”

8. How did you come up with the name Pachyforms?  What got you into working with them, and writing best selling books about them as well?

As far as the name, having to describe this group of plants as caudiciforms and pachycauls everytime I talked about them was simply too wordy. A popular name for this group was fat plants, which I thought was too crude, so I came up with a more sophisticated version combining pachy ( which means thick) and form. I have always liked unusual animals and plants. Plants that develop unique individual forms and sculptural bodies to me are the supreme forms of plants as art. Like art most of these plants increase in value with age. After seeing people’s collections of specimen plants at shows and in their homes I couldn’t; believe that there was no printed record of these living works of art. I also realized that if people did not focus on their propagation, they would eventually become extinct, not in the wild but as natural works of art that could be experienced in human society. This was the same motivation that drove me to publish the Vivarium.

9. Can you share with us a few other “industry” people that inspired or helped you out back in the day and why/how?

Although I’ve kept and bred many species of snakes, my focus for the last thirty years has been lizards and frogs. Bob Mailloux and the late Bert Langerwerf were significant inspirations. I’ve learned a great deal from their methodologies using outdoor vivaria.  I’ve also worked with Allen Repashy on various projects. His unique and very practical way of looking at problems and developing methods for commercial herpetoculture has influenced how I keep Rhacodactylus. His diet for keeping these geckos has had a major impact on making species considered among the rarest in the trade to becoming among the most popular.

10. Can you tell me what you see as a few positives, and a few negatives in regards to the direction of thereptile industry today and why?

I don’t think the negative problems with the reptile hobby can be attributed to the industry but more to socio-cultural factors. The Internet, the media technologies and social networking are strong attractors that have drawn people toward a more anthropocentric lifestyle and is a challenge for nature oriented hobbies to survive in this new world. I think we need to find ways to integrate the hobby with the new technology. Intermediating the experience of keeping herps by integrating digital cameras and microphones in setups could be a possible course.

I also think it’s time for us to assess the future of various species , decide which ones we want to establish before a variety of factors makes them no longer available. There are so many idiotic wildlife laws (e.g., listing non native species, such as Jamaican Boas and Black Pond Turtles on the Endangered Species Act) and legislation is so influenced by politics and radical animal rights groups that I  have no faith in the people in charge.  Global warming is another factor. If the predictions of global warming and sea rise are correct then many insular species will become extinct in the future. Some species that have temperature dependent sex determination will have such gender skewed populations that they will be at risk of extinction. We need to ask ourselves are there species that are ethnozoologically valuable enough that they deserve preservation, even if it is only as self sustaining populations integrated in human society. I also think we need to create programs to encourage the general public to get involved in keeping threatened species. The general public spends several hundred millions dollars annually to keep common turtles like red-eared sliders as pets. Just think if all that money could be applied to keeping rarer, less disposable species.

Brumation Basics – December 2012

Brumation Basics

By Jonathan Rheins

All reptiles and amphibians are ectothermic; that is, the environment in which they are found dictates their body temperature.  These animals have perfected the art of altering body position and their location within their surroundings to establish an ideal body temperature.  In the terrarium, this behavior is often demonstrated by animals moving in and out of localized “basking” spots.  In nature, this amounts to where the animal chooses to position itself in relation to the sun or other source of radiant heat.
During weather extremes many ectothermic animals seek refuge from the elements either underground, deep within rock fissures, or within any other acceptably insulated space.  This behavior is known as brumation,when the period of inactivity occurs during cold weather, and aestivation, when the weather is too warm for regular activity.
For wild herps, brumation and aestivation are basically survival tactics.  These behaviors are natural adaptations that allow them to slow down their metabolism drastically and survive for extended periods when conditions are simply too unfavorable for regular activity. While reptiles are generally rather tough creatures, they also often inhabit some of the harshest environments on Earth.
Central Asian (aka Russian) tortoises, Agrionemys horsfieldii,serve as a prime example of these principles.  During the winter months in most of their range temperatures can drop far below 0 degrees F with many feet of snow covering the ground.  Conversely, in the summer months, the temperature regularly soars over 100 degrees F.  When the weather reaches these extremes, A. Horsfeidii will be burrowed as far as 6’ under ground, and emerge only for 3 to 4 months after winter to eat, breed, and lay eggs.
When maintaining reptiles in a terrarium setting, we must keep in mind that the activity of many herps is seasonally dictated.   This is part of their hard-wired instinct and it is much easier to embrace this fact than try to combat it by “tricking” an animal by manipulating lighting and heating.  By gaining a thorough understanding of an animal’s natural history and behavioral patterns, it becomes easier to interpret their behavior and adjust husbandry accordingly.
There are two general approaches to dealing with brumation behavior in the terrarium setting.  With species that undergo a true brumation in the wild, it may be acceptable to replicate this rest period for captive animals housed indoors.  Animals such as tortoises and box turtles that live outside may be allowed to enter brumation on their own, with minimal involvement on the part of the keeper.  For some species, such as cornsnakes, this annual fluctuation of temperature and photoperiod induces breeding and subsequent egg-laying.  In the wild, most temperate and sub-tropical herps reproduce during the spring and summer months, ensuring the young have ample time and resources prior to facing their first winter.
If captive propagation is not your goal, most pet reptiles can be kept awake year-round.  This alternative is the more typical approach, and requires fewer changes to the husbandry routine.  In these cases, photoperiod and temperatures are mainatained the same throughout the year.  However, it should be noted that even if no adjustments are made on your part, some animals will experience a “slow down” exemplified by inactivity and decreased appetite.
A thorough understanding of an animal’s natural range and the weather patterns therein can aid greatly in making brumation preparations for any herp.  Every attempt should be made to replicate the natural environment as much as possible.  The specifics regarding brumation timing and procedures will vary from one species to another, but some generalizations can be made.
Changes in lighting and heating regimens should be done gradually, as they occur in the wild.  Transitioning areptile from “normal” summer temperatures to winter temperatures overnight can be not only stressful to thereptile, but can have negative health implications as well.  Additionally, feeding should be slowly reduced as the temperatures are decreased.  Brumating herps do not hunt or eat in the wild, and having an empty digestive tract prior to entering brumation will ensure that no undigested food is left to decay in the gut and potentially cause illness.
In the spring, this procedure is essentially reversed; temperatures and photoperiod are gradually increased and feeding is resumed once all environmental conditions are stabilized.  For many reptile species this return to warmer temperatures and longer day length triggers courtship and breeding behavior.  The actual cooling process plays a significant role as well, specifically with spermatogenesis and ovulation in male and female herps respectively.
Only animals in ideal health and of good body weight should be considered for any sort of artificial or natural brumation.  Typically, herps eat and grow during the spring and summer in preparation for cooler months when food is scarce.  Although baby herps do brumate in the wild, it is out of necessity.  Most hobbyists and breeders wait until an animal is in its second or third year prior to allowing it to undergo a full winter cool-down.
As one of the most popular and prevalent pet lizards in the US, it seems only fitting that we look at the details of brumation in bearded dragons, and its implications for the average keeper.  Many first time bearded dragon owners become understandably alarmed when their normally ravenous dragon suddenly begins sleeping all day and losing interest in food. However, the vast majority of mature dragons will show marked changes in behavior during different parts of the year.
In the United States, most bearded dragons that have reached sexual maturity (typically 12-18 months) will begin to show signs of impending winter dormancy beginning in mid-fall.  In southern California, where the author lives and breeds bearded dragons, animals begin slowing down by the end of September.  External cues such as shortened day length, lower temperatures, and fluctuations in barometric pressure all contribute to the onset of brumation in bearded dragons.
During this transitional time, most dragons will still enthusiastically eat their favorite foods, but may lose interest in less appealing fare. Basking behavior will often change as well, with animals spending less timeunderneath heat sources and more time in the cooler regions of the enclosure.
By mid-November most male bearded dragons will have stopped eating almost completely.  Female dragons tend to brumate as well, but males are more likely to exhibit more drastic changes in behavior.  Food should still be offered on a semi-regular basis as per the interest in food shown by the animal.
As the days continue to get shorter, and nighttime temperatures drop, one should not be alarmed to see their bearded dragon go for weeks, sometimes months, without eating.  Animals that are going through a normal brumation period will lose minimal body weight, and at no point should they appear skinny or weak.  However, it is normal for them to remain hunkered down in a cold and dark corner of the cage for days on end.
It is important to ensure that brumating herps, bearded dragons included, remain properly hydrated.  The majority of their normal water intake is via the foods that they eat.  So when they are off food for the winter, a water bowl should always be available.  Alternately, adult dragons can be given a 10-minute soak in warm water once or twice a week to allow ample opportunity to drink.
Most of the author’s adult dragons begin “waking up” around the beginning of March.  As the ambient temperature begins to increase and the days begin getting longer again, the dragons will begin basking more often, and showing a gradually increasing interest in food.  By April, male bearded dragons will begin displaying their full breeding behavior.  Darkened beards, head bobbing, and courting of any receptive female can be expected.
When temperatures have stabilized in mid to late spring the majority of lizards will have resumed a normal feeding schedule, and should exhibit more typical basking behavior.  It should be noted that some male dragons will be less inclined to eat when they are housed with a female.  These animals will often be more concerned with breeding than with eating.
To the uninitiated, the entire brumation or aestevation process seems quite unusual, and entirely foreign.  As mammals, we find the idea of going for extended periods of time with little to no food to be alarming, and a great cause for concern.  However, we must remember that reptiles are a very ancient and well-adapted group of animals that have evolved in such a way as to survive when and where most other organisms could not.
By familiarizing yourself with the underlying biological implications of the brumation process, one can become better prepared to recognize and accommodate these behaviors in the terrarium setting.  While some concessions must be made, overall, the best results are observed when herps are allowed to follow a natural seasonal cycle.
Behavioral and physiological changes in tune with the environment are part of what make reptiles and amphibians the creatures that they are.  If we can identify and embrace these behavioral changes, rather than allow them to concern us, it will only allow us to better care for our charges, and ensure that our herps live the most natural, and comfortable life that they can.