The realm of reptiles, amphibians, and other creepy-crawlies has been shrouded in mystery for thousands of years. Revered by some and feared by others, these unique creatures have conjured up countless myths and legends by people from the world over.
The past century or so has proven to be a time of scientific enlightenment in regard to herptiles of all shapes and sizes. We now have a firm grasp on reptile biology, ecology and, most recently, husbandry. Still, many myths and erroneous stories recounted by well-meaning individuals remain in circulation.
As a manager and long-term employee of a major herp retailer, rather than scold people, I have learned to listen, reflect and politely explain to them the true details of reptile husbandry. By imparting my knowledge and experience onto these curious individuals, I can rest more soundly knowing that at least one herp myth has been sufficiently busted for that person. Furthermore, the entire scenario becomes an effective learning opportunity for both myself and the customer.
Does Size Matter?
Of all the stories, tall tales and misinformation that I have heard, one myth has proven significantly more prevalent than any other: “My lizard will only grow as big as his enclosure, right?” Wrong. And mind you, I hate telling someone that they are wrong, but the reality is that habitat size plays little role in adult size.
Putting an animal with a large mature stature in a small cage will not directly affect adult size. The key word here is “directly.” Rather, consequential side effects of a small enclosure, such as inappropriate thermal gradients, inadequate furnishings and the owner’s unfortunate lack of understanding of general husbandry, result in smaller animals that often fail to thrive.
Herps kept as pets or as breeding stock should be given as much space to move about as is feasibly possible. This not only allows for the provision of satisfactory thermal zones, but in my opinion, also plays a large role in the psychological well-being of the animals.
Fast Food Only
Another common misconception that I hear time and time again is that herps (usually in reference to snakes) will only hunt and consume living prey. Conversely, with a few exceptions, nearly any palatable food will be taken with gusto, given that all husbandry requirements are met.
Snakes of most species can be conditioned to accept either freshly dispatched or frozen/thawed rodents with time and patience. Additionally, many types of lizards will quickly adapt to pellet diets, freeze-dried insects and other alternatives.
Most reptiles prefer a varied diet, both in the wild and in our homes. The provision of these aforementioned foods can be a great way to add variety to a herp’s diet. However, in many cases, an occasional handful of live crickets is recommended for most herps, as the hunting process provides exercise and mental stimulation for the animal.
Odors Need Not Apply
One of the harsh realities of reptile retailing is the unavoidable odor associated with not the herps themselves, but the related live feeders. We keep the display cages in our shop clean and utterly devoid of waste. Nonetheless, the odors associated with hundreds of live mice and rats, as well as tens of thousands of crickets, can produce a unique aroma.
Unfortunately, many people assume that the herps themselves are smelly pets. In fact, the opposite is true. Compared to cats, dogs, rabbits and other small mammals, reptiles are comparatively odor-free. Herps themselves have no obvious odors like those detectable on a poorly groomed canine. In fact, with the exception of defensive musking and the animal’s feces itself, herps are odorless.
Fecal matter of any animal type is expected to have an objectionable smell, and herps are no exception. However, reptiles and amphibians have a much slower metabolism than mammals and produce much less waste. Properly maintained habitats for all but the most giant of herps will present no issues as far as owners’ noses are concerned.
Live feeders of all shapes and sizes are commonplace in the world of herpetoculture. Likewise, so is the myriad of tall tales and misconstrued stories surrounding them. Perhaps the most widely known myth surrounds the Zophobas worm, a dietary staple of many lizards and turtles.
Zophobas morio is a tropical beetle larva, closely resembling a very large mealworm. These insects go by many trade names, most notably “superworm” or “king worm.” Stories of these feeders killing pets from the inside out and chewing their way through the body are abundant and unfortunate.
The reality is that while a Zophobas worm may be capable of a small pinch to a finger or piece of fruit, the likelihood of a worm surviving the chewing process and then making it’s way clear of the herp tummy mouth-first is extremely unlikely.
This species of worm (unlike other species used extensively as live tackle) drowns very quickly in a few centimeters of water. This fact, compounded by the harsh acidic environment of the herptile alimentary tract, all but ensures that no worm will be fortunate enough to survive the trip.
Toadally Safe to Touch
This one is an oldie but goodie and transcends the line between herp husbandry and daily life. The story goes that if you touch or handle a toad, you will get warts. This is not true and is based solely on ancient legends and mythology.
Humans get warts from viruses, often contracted from other humans, but never ever from a frog, toad or reptile of any sort. In fact, the “warts” on toads are actually nothing more than modified skin designed to aid toads in their rough-and-tumble lifestyle. They are in no way related to the warts with which they are often associated.
General hygiene rules apply; hands should be washed thoroughly after handling any animal. In actuality, this is to prevent the spread of bacteria and other germs and has nothing to do
with impending dermatological conditions.
Jonathan Rheins is an avid herpetoculturist whose interest in all things reptilian began at an early age. He is a manager at LLLReptile & Supply Co. in Escondido, Calif. and, when not fulfilling that position, spends his time working with and writing about a wide variety of exotic reptiles, amphibians and invertebrates.