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You're a what? Herpetologist.

Gleaming just inside the mouth of the cave, the pinpoint of light shifts, almost imperceptibly The dragon stirs! The light's a reflection, captured in the eye of the Komodo dragon, one of the world's largest reptiles, found only in Indonesia. A few footsteps transport you thousands of miles to the rain forests of central Africa. In a stand of bamboo, winding around the base of several new shoots, slithers a Gaboon viper! Catch your breath; take several paces before you lose it again. You've crossed the Atlantic and are now staring straight into the open mouth of a Cuban crocodile! Jagged jaws snap shut, sending ripples across the pond to lap a few inches from your toes. Welcome to the Reptile House at the National Zoo, located in the heart of Washington, D.C.

More than 600 animals, nearly 90 species from all sewn continents, make up the collection managed by Michael Davenport, herpetologist. Herpetology is the study of reptiles, and a herpetologist is a specialist in these animals. Mike assens that a true herpetologist is someone who holds a doctorate in the field, as does the curator of the collection. But we think Mike has earned the title. As the collection's manager, he's worked with crocodilians, amphibians, snakes, and lizards for 17 years at the National Zoo. But his interest in reptiles goes back much farther.

"I was one of those kids who liked to go out into the woods and catch animals," he says, "and some of the easiest things to lay your hands on are frogs and box turtles." Not content with a simple aquarium, he dug a backyard pond, lined it with cement, and fenced it in to keep his menagerie happy His snakes stayed in the basement until his mother discovered them; then they joined the group outside.

To explain his interest in reptiles, he says "I guess, if I had to make a wild stab at it, I'd say because reptiles are much more easily managed than other animals. Monkeys aren't very good house pets," he jokes.

Mike majored in zoology, the branch of biology concerned with the animal kingdom, at Oklahoma State University in Tulsa. When he finished school, he came to Washington and applied for a job at the zoo, which is pan of the Smithsonian Institution. He waited a year until a position became available. In the interim, he worked in the entomology department at the Museum of Natural History. "I think insects are fascinating, too-and could be better appreciated, just as reptiles could," he says.

At the reptile house, he supervises a staff of four keepers. But, he laughs, he basically manages or tries to manage the paperwork piled on his desk. Most of his co-workers have been in the reptile house nearly as long as he has. And each has a specialty "Actually, it's just worked out that way," he says. For example, one person cares primarily for the amphibians; another the lizards. "I work with the crocodilians," he says.

The work encompasses a variety of tasks. "It's not a matter of sweeping out cages," says Mike. He and his colleagues design new exhibits, develop special diets, and breed many of the animals for the collection.

Complicating their efforts is the fact that "We know very little about many animals in the reptile world," he says. That's one reason Mike and the other staff members share what they learn about the animals in their care not only with the public that visits the zoo, but with the scientific community, too. All have written articles for a variety of scholarly journals, though Mike admits that he would sometimes prefer to wrestle with an alligator than tangle with a typewriter.

The paucity of information poses problems when trying to determine the proper temperature for each exhibit. Reptiles are cold-blooded animals. "They get the heat to warm their bodies from external sources," he says. "So you have to use lights and heating coils to enable the animals to reach a preferred body temperature." The right temperatures assure that the animals digest their food properly; enable them to handle metabolic wastes; and help their immune systems function so that their resistance to disease remains strong. "We experiment to see how the animals act. If they remain in the light all the time and stay glued to one spot, we'll raise the temperature a bit because they are not getting enough heat."

The animals must be fed as well as kept warm. Some of the food they like, such as fruits and vegetables, you'd find in your own kitchen. You might discover other reptilian favorites in your cupboards, too, but if you do, you'll probably reach for a trap. How would you like to sit down to a dinner of cockroaches, crickets, and rats? When we visited, we caught the king cobra in the middle of lunch, his jaws spread wide around a rat, with only the rear legs and tail left to be swallowed. "There's a reason why some snakes and amphibians eat whole animals," says Mike. "They provide complete nutrition: The bones provide calcium; the rest of the animal yields needed vitamins, minerals, and other nutrients. Some of these animals would suffer from malnutrition if fed only meat."

The king cobra is not the only royal resident of the reptile house. Two prized inhabitants are gavials, narrow-mouthed crocodiles presented to the zoo by the King of Nepal. Befitting their regal status, the gavials are feted with gold each week-goldfish, that is, thousands of them. The zoo's commissary provides this repast and nearly all the other delicacies the animals crave.

The rodents are usually killed at the commissary. "This is done for several reasons," says Davenport. "We have to keep track of the animal's habits and assure that each receives food. Live rodents, also, could bite or scratch some of the reptiles in the collection." If more than one animal inhabits an exhibit, the stronger one may end up with the meal. Live food in an exhibit might prompt a feeding frenzy, according to Mike, and could lead some animals to dine on their roommates.

Sometimes, certain animals require special diets. Mike relates that several years ago the staff was concemed that some of the reptiles lacked the calcium they needed to develop strong bones. "There are no published minimum daily requirements for reptiles," he says with a smile. A nutritionist who was conducting doctoral research at the zoo developed a high-calcium food for crickets, which are a staple for many reptiles. The food was available 24 hours a day to the insects, which, in turn, were eaten by the animals. The result-stronger, healthier lizards and snakes. Some of the animals in the collection prefer a special treatgiant Haitian cockroaches. They can't be found on the commissary's shelves, so Davenport and his colleagues breed them in their lab above the exhibit hall.

They also breed many of the animals displayed at the Reptile House. "When I began working at the zoo, we obtained many of our animals from dealers," he says. "In some cases, we still do. But we've been trying to get away from buying wild animals." Some animals are more difficult to breed than others. "You have to set the mood for some," he says. "Music, candlelight, a plate of fresh crickets." Many of the tropical amphibians have a breeding cycle that's tied to the rainy seasons. "Our amphibian specialist may place the red-eyed tree frogs in a chamber with a soft shower for a couple of days. Soon they start amplexing-that means mating-and, before you know it, you find egg clusters under the leaves.."

Creating the right mood is important in another of Mike's duties, arranging the exhibits, which is a particular concern of Mike and his colleagues. The animals' needs come first, such as the proper temperature and humidity The right humidity is especially important for some of the amphibians, such as the tiny tree frogs. If it's not just right, they can die of dehydration ',,It's impossible, of course, to replicate the animals' natural habitats. "It's not important to their mental health," he jokes. "I know a fellow who breeds crocs in a warehouse in stock tanks. About the only natural element is the water." But decoration and display create "a pleasing theater," he says. "We want people to look at these animals and come away with a more positive feeling then they came in with."

The effects achieved by imaginative displays remind us that these animals are as much a part of the world as you or me.

The crocodile exhibit that Mike has designed appears as the real world in miniature, with palm trees, bamboo, and large fish swimming in the pools. He enjoys working with the tropical plants. "It's almost like getting paid for my hobby," he says.

The proper temperature, humidity, and diet help assure a healthy animal. Sometimes, though, illnesses do strike. And when they do, Mike and his colleagues call on the zoo's veterinary staff. But the state of reptile medicine is not very advanced; it's not easy to tell when a snake is sick. Behavioral changes are the principal indicators, which again highlights the importance of the keeper's skill as an observer. For example, a sick animal might be in a part of the exhibit where it normally doesn't go, or remain immobile for longer periods than usual. But observation can only tell you so much. "Once," says Mike, "we had a boa with a large swelling. We thought it might be gravid, or pregnant, so we couldn't X-ray it. The animal died. It tumed out that the swelling was a very large abscess."

Many people have an aversion to reptiles. Mike believes that much of this is learned behavior. "It seems to me, from my observations, that the little children who visit the reptile house are not frightened by reptiles. It's when they're older that they begin to respond negatively," he says. He notes that the reptile house frequently plays host to school field trips. "I've seen many teachers shudder when they pass through," he says. "Kids pick up on this."

But the animals in the reptile house-the fragile tree frog, the leather-tough Cuban croc, the blue-tongued skink, the green tree python, arrayed in colors more varied than a rainbow-inspire not terror but awe. "There is nothing to fear from reptiles," says Davenport. "They avoid trouble rather than seek it. But, just like us, they respond to potential threats. The venomous snakes that we have here at the zoo are no threat if they are handled properly But I wouldn't reach into the rattlesnake's cage and take his water dish."
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Title Annotation:study of reptiles
Author:Stanton, Michael
Publication:Occupational Outlook Quarterly
Date:Mar 22, 1989
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