The Fair

I was excited to go home to the Twin Cities last weekend to join my family at the Minnesota State Fair. Starting out early in the morning, we found breakfast at the mini doughnut stand and wondered what to do next. My eye was soon caught by a tortoise outside of “Monty’s Traveling Reptile Show.” I always thought this building was a little tacky, with signs worthy of a peculiar circus, and had never been inside. I was surprised when my mom said, “Let’s go in, you’ll love it!”

The atmosphere inside was not the circus I was expecting. Instead, a variety of reptiles lay in individual terrariums with educational signs about each. The number of reptiles represented from around the world was stunning. As I stepped away from the diamondback rattlesnake display (grateful that I live in a place with so few deadly animals), I saw a peaceful Black-throated Monitor lizard snoozing against the glass. There was a clear view of a gaping hole in the side of his head.

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I knew that snakes don’t have external ears, so what could that hole be? It turns out that most reptiles like lizards, crocodiles, and turtles, do have external ears. This lizard’s tympanic membrane, or eardrum, was clearly visible and capable of picking up sound waves through the air.

After a full day at the Fair, I was relieved to return to the quiet town of Cable and to care for my own reptiles. I had to admire Digger’s smooth head which lacked a hole for his ear. His ear structure (hidden behind a layer of scales) is capable of hearing sound waves through the air but is better equipped to sense vibrations transmitted through the ground into his jawbone. Even though he didn’t respond, I’m sure he heard my excited, “Hello, Digger!” when I returned.

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Humidity Control

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Emory’s cloudy eyes indicate she is preparing to shed her skin.

When Emory, the Great Plains Rat Snake, had cloudy eyes last week, I set up a sort of spa to help with her upcoming shed. She had trouble shedding her skin last time and I suspect humidity was to blame. In dry conditions, the skin cracks and breaks off in many little pieces. It can even be more difficult to peel off and some skin might get stuck on. This can be a problem especially for the clear scale covering the eyes. If the eye caps stay on, layers build up during each shed and will eventually damage the eye.

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To avoid these problems I installed a simple “fogger” in Emory’s enclosure. An ultrasonic fog generator (visible as the red glow in the photo) sits in a bowl of water and produces a fine mist. Just a 20-minute session with the fogger is enough to raise the humidity from 35% to 50%. With this daily burst of humid air, Emory was able to shed her skin overnight all in one piece.

Digging

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Digger, the Western Hognose Snake

Of all the animals in the Museum’s living collection, Digger has the most fitting name. This Western Hognose Snake really is an excellent digger. Some mornings he causes a momentary panic when I don’t see him in his enclosure. Luckily he has never escaped. He simply hides himself underneath the wood chips.

Hognose snakes are named for their upturned nose that they use like a shovel. Burrowing through leaf litter or sandy soil, they look for toads, which are their favorite meal. They also have a keel, or raised ridge, on each scale that may help them move through soil. (Keeled scales may also enhance camouflage by making each scale less shiny. No one quite seems to know for sure what the keel’s purpose is.) These snakes can also use their nose to excavate a burrow for winter hibernation. Digger doesn’t have to worry about cold temperatures or searching for toads at the Museum, but he still likes to dig!

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Putting the “Tiger” in Tiger Salamander

Tiger Salamanders, one of seven salamander species found in Wisconsin, are named for their black and yellow markings that sometimes resemble tiger stripes. I think the name is still fitting for our salamander, “Scuba,” whose markings are more splotchy than striped. He lives up to his namesake by being a voracious predator.

Tiger salamanders are carnivores that eat pretty much anything that will fit in their mouth. As aquatic larvae, they might eat insect larvae, tadpoles, and small fish. Terrestrial adults eat worms, frogs, mice, or even other salamanders.

Scuba’s favorite snack is mealworms, but red worms are the bulk of his diet. When he senses a worm (and if he’s hungry), he strikes with surprising speed. A red worm is too long to swallow in a single gulp, so he vigorously shakes it to subdue his prey. Normally we see Scuba as a slow-moving and elusive creature, but he can become quite a tiger when food is around.

Shed!

I normally write about our mew residents in “News from the Mews,” but this non-feathered member of our Living Collections is just too cool not to share. Emory, the Great Plains Rat Snake, has lived at the museum since 2013 and can be found basking in the Curiosity Center.

Whether you find snakes creepy or irresistible, it’s often for the exact same reason: snakes are weird. They are so different from the furry mammals or cute birds we find immediately appealing. It is difficult for us to relate to their strange scaly, legless bodies. Those differences, though, mean they have some unique adaptations that make them endlessly fascinating.

One example is their skin. Unlike mammals, snake skin does not grow with the animal; the snake has to shed the outer layer in order to grow. Last week, Emory had cloudy, opaque eyes that meant she was preparing to shed. A few days later, I noticed her rubbing her head on rocks and logs in her enclosure. The skin on her head broke free and she worked the rest off in once piece. The final shed is actually inside-out because it peels off the snake like you peel a sock off your foot. I was mesmerized by the whole process and I’m sure she feels good with her fresh, shiny scales.