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Leapin' lizards: go behind the scenes of a museum exhibition on scaly lizards and snakes.

Darrel Frost has an animal-friendly office at the American Museum of Natural History in New York. In one section of his office, the walls are lined with several tanks holding lizards and snakes.

Frost walks over to one of the cages and scoops out a snake with grey and orange stripes. This Grey-Banded Kingsnake is just one species that's part of a group of animals called squamates (SKWAH-mates). "Squamates" is another name for lizards, including legless lizards and snakes. Frost has been interested in squamates since he was a kid. Now, as a curator at the museum, Frost hopes to educate people about these diverse organisms. That's why he's so excited about the museum's upcoming lizards exhibition.

The exhibition will allow museum visitors to observe these amazing creatures in action. Check out this behind-the-scenes tour to learn more about the animals that Frost is gathering for the exhibition.

What are some characteristics of squamates?

Squamates are vertebrates. Their body temperature changes as the surrounding air temperature changes. To stay at a healthy temperature, squamates move between colder and warmer areas such as the cool shade of a tree or the warmth of a sun-drenched log. Also, these animals have scaly skin. As squamates grow, they molt, or shed the outer layer of this skin and replace it with a new layer.

I grew up in southern Arizona, where there are many kinds of snakes and lizards. So I've always been curious about them. All through my teenage years I read everything I could on these creatures. At the time. I never thought it could become my job. Finally, it did at the museum.

Part of my time is spent looking for new species of lizards and snakes in regions of Africa, Asia, and the Americas. I also oversee the museum's herpetology (HOR-pih-TAHL-uh-gee) collections. These include squamates, amphibians, and crocodiles. And I create exhibitions such as the upcoming show on squamates.

The exhibition will highlight the diversity of the world's nearly 8,000 species of squamates. For instance, the smallest squamate is the dwarf gecko, which can fit all four of its feet onto a dime. And the largest squamate--an Anaconda snake can grow to a length of 10 meters (33 feet).

To show this diversity, the exhibition will include models of squamates and live animals.

How did you decide which animals to put in the exhibition?

The animals will be on exhibition for several months. So we could only show animals that are hardy in captivity. Among these, I chose a variety of animals. That way, visitors would see the similarities and differences among squamates.

For instance, when visitors walk through the exhibition, they will notice two distinct groups: One group of squamates--called "sight hounds"--hunts by sight. Another group--called "nose hounds"--hunts through other senses.

Can you give examples of sight hounds and nose hounds?

One example of a sight hound is the chameleon (kuh-MEEL-yuhn). It uses its excellent vision to spot prey. Then, the chameleon grabs the prey with its tongue. The tip of the chameleon's tongue is sticky. So when it shoots out its tongue, the tip sticks to the prey. When the chameleon pulls its tongue back in, the prey comes with it.

Monitor lizards and snakes rely on other senses to find prey. They use their deeply forked tongues to track--or "sniff out "--chemicals left by other animals. For instance, a snake touches surfaces in the environment with its tongue. Then, the snake brings its tongue back into its mouth. There, the chemicals get transferred to special pits. These pits can tell whether the scent particles are from prey, an enemy, or other object. That helps the snake locate its prey.

What are some other highlights of the exhibition?

We included daytime and nighttime predators, poisonous and nonpoisonous animals, as well as those with different methods for avoiding predators.

Squamates use many strategies to avoid being eaten. For example, chameleons use camouflage to avoid predators. The color of their skin matches their environment.

Other squamates, like the Basilisk Lizard, simply flee as quickly as they can. This lizard is able to stand upright and run across water.

What pact of the exhibition brings out the "kid" in you?

I'm excited to see a lot of really cool-looking squamates gathered in one place. For instance, there's going to be a Veiled Chameleon. Its bright-green color and the helmet-like ridge on its head will certainly draw a crowd. Also, there will be a 14-kilogram (30-pound) Monitor Lizard on exhibition. It gives me the same sense of wonder as when I was a kid, looking at rattlesnakes in Arizona.

SCIENCE CONTENT STANDARDS

For Grades K-4

* Organisms and their environments

* Characteristics of organisms

For Grades 5-8

* Structure of the earth system

* Diversity and adaptation of organisms

INTEGRATE YOUR CURRICULUM!

Language Arts--Reading Comprehension

BEFORE READING

Set a Purpose

To learn about a group of lizards called squamates, and the role of a curator.

Background

* An emerald tree boa catches food with its long teeth and then squeezes it to death. Like all snakes, it swallows its prey whole, head first. Snakes don't chew their food, they digest it with very strong acids in the snake's stomach.

* Like all chameleons, veiled chameleons are able to change the color of their skin with tile temperature, the light, and their varying moods.

Discussion Question

* Why do scientists collect different species to place in zoos or museums? (Possible answers: to study them; educate others; create public interest in the different creatures.)

AFTER READING

Discussion Questions

* Which squamates would you most like to see? Why?

* What are some ways in which animals use their senses to find their prey? (Possible answers: poweful sense of smell; good eyesight; sticky tongues to "catch" prey.)

* What are some ways in which animals protect themselves from predators? (Possible answers: camouflage; speed to run away; odors; poison.)

RESOURCES

* Lizards by Mark O'Shea (Anness Publishing, 2005) has lots of great information about lizards.

* http://ology.amnh.org/Check out the "ology" section of the American Museum of Natural History Web site to learn about various areas of science.

* www.scholastic.com/lizards features fun facts and challenging activities.

Words to Know

Curator--scientist who oversees a museum collection

Vertebrate--animal with a backbone

Molt--to shed the outer skin

Herpetology--the study of squamates, amphibians, turtles, and crocodiles

Prey--an animal that is hunted or captured for food

Predator--an animal that captures and eats other animals

Camouflage--an animal's color or pattern that helps it blend in with its surroundings

check it out

More than 60 colorful, live squamates will captivate visitors in a new exhibition opening in summer 2006 at the American Museum of Natural History in New York. The exhibition explores these creatures' remarkable adaptations, including deadly venom, and sometimes surprising modes of movement. The Museum has been researching and celebrating the natural world for more than 135 years and has more than 30 million objects in its extensive research collection. The Museum's 200 scientists travel around the world on 100 field expeditions each year, studying everything from lizards to leeches to the universe.

To learn more, ask your teacher, or go to www.amnh.org
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Title Annotation:life sciences
Author:Bryner, Jeanna
Publication:SuperScience
Article Type:Interview
Geographic Code:1U2NY
Date:May 1, 2006
Words:1191
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