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Keeping Reptiles Newsletter
 Issue 20   
October, 2005
Reptilian Ethology
In this Issue

by Christina Miller

Ethology is the science of studying animal behaviour, and when dealing with animal husbandry, having at least a basic understanding of animal behaviour is vital. However, the behaviours of exotic animals kept as pets, such as reptiles and amphibians, are often misunderstood or misinterpreted. The common problem with understanding reptile (and amphibian) behaviour is not the animals themselves. Many people tend to have the idea that because these organisms are "lower" vertebrates, that they cannot develop complex behavioural problems, and that their specific requirements to stay healthy can be disregarded. You cannot keep an iguana, a treefrog or a python in the same conditions that you would keep your dog.

Reptiles are considered exotic animals, not because they are from "foreign" countries, or because they are not typical household pets. It is because their captive needs are quite specific, and very unlike those of truly domesticated animals (mostly mammals, some birds). Realistically, reptiles and amphibians need their natural environment to be reproduced for life in captivity. Without relatively the same conditions that they have in the wild, most species will not live very long in captivity. Even more specific and exact conditions are required to breed certain species outisde of their natural habitat. A proper environment, suitable for the species in question, is absolutely required for normal, healthy behaviour.

Like other animals, the environment a reptile is kept in can affect their behaviour. However, reptiles are more susceptible to environmentally caused behaviour problems. Reptiles are unable to easily adapt to artificial conditions. This is because every species' biology is "programmed" to work in a certain type of environment, sometimes with very specific requirements. So, a difference as small as a couple of degrees cooler than the preferred temperature range of a species can very noticeably change their behaviour and how well their bodies work. Even easy-to-keep species such as leopard geckos (Eublepharis macularius) have certain requirements that absolutely must be provided.

Of course, behavioral problems can also be caused by medical reasons, but these changes in behaviour are usually only noticed when it is too late. Very slight changes in the animal's daily routine may be the only subtle cues that the animal is sick. Having an understanding of an animal's normal, natural behaviour can really help save your animal if it contracts a sickness for whatever reason, which includes an improper environment. Too hot, too cool, improper humidity, no UV-B lighting, cagemates, too small of an enclosure, improper enclosure orientation (ex: long, flat enclosure for an arboreal species)… The list goes on and on. This again stresses the importance of having the proper environment.

Another major problem with understanding reptilian and amphibian ethology is the use of inaccurate anthropomorphizing. Anthropomorphism is when one associates human attributes (including emotion or motivation) or behaviour to nonhuman things or organisms. Here's an example: A novice anole keeper tells you that his two green anoles love to bask together, because they do it all the time. What's really happening is that each anole needs to bask (thermoregulation is a normal reptilian behaviour), and since there's only one good basking spot available in the enclosure, they're forced to bask together. Reptiles are solitary animals that do not "enjoy" having to share the best basking spot with another reptile. The other animal is seen as competition, and being forced to share an important "resource" with this competitor can be very stressful.

Reptiles, although some are more intelligent than they're credited (such as green iguanas and some monitors), do not really have the complex emotions that humans have. They do not feel love, anger or envy, but are motivated by instinct: They fear predators, and eating and reproduction are necessary. Some of the more intelligent reptiles can become accustomed to people, however, such as in the case of green iguanas. However, again, these animals do not "love" the person, or "miss" them, they are simply used to the person's presence, and may have also associated this person with good things ("This person brings me food/water. This person is good").

On the whole, people are still fairly uneducated when it comes to reptiles: Partly because many people are unaware of the wealth of information available, partly because there are still many people who propagate outdated or misunderstood information, and partly due to human ignorance. As a serious herpetoculturist, or if you just keep one or a couple of reptiles and/or amphibians as pets, you can make their captive lives more livable by putting some effort into learning about the species, their behaviour and their needs. By understanding a reptile's natural behaviour, one can understand what motivates them, and one can more accurately determine what is causing abnormal behaviour.

Recommended reading:

Allen, C. "Animal Consciousness." The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Summer 2003 Edition). Edward N. Zalta (ed.). (

Kaplan, M., 2002. Anthropomorphism and Reptiles. (

Kaplan, M., 2002. Ethology, Ecology, and Critical Anthropomorphism. (

Warwick, C. 1990. Important ethological and other considerations of the study and maintenance of reptiles in captivity. Applied Animal Behaviour Science. 27: 363-366. Available online at

Warwick, C. 1990. Reptilian ethology in captivity: Observations of some problems and an evaluation of their ætiology. Applied Animal Behaviour Science. 26: 1-13. Available online at

*Ethology - the science of studying animal behaviour in their natural habitat. It is often used to propose evolutionary explanations.

Christina has always been interested in animals, but at nine years old discovered reptiles and amphibians to be the most intriguing. For her tenth birthday she received two Gekko ulikovvski, or golden geckos. Since then, she has moved her way around the reptile and amphibian kingdoms, now owning seven herps.

Christina studies animal health (veterinary) technology at Vanier College and is in the process of writing a detailed book about the care of leopard geckos. You can find more pictures and information on Geckos and their care at Christina's website.

The care and breeding of Childrens Pythons (Antarasia childreni) - Part 2

by Justin Julander, Australian Addiction Reptiles


These pythons are extremely easy to breed, and it's basically just a matter of putting a male and a female together. At my facility, there is a natural temp drop in the winter, but I will offer food year-round as the snakes still have access to temps conducive for digestion. The snakes will choose lower temps on their own and will cycle in the thermogradient provided. During the cooler months, the snakes will breed actively. Males will sometimes refuse food during breeding time, and then females will usually follow suit once they are gravid. This is nice, because you only have one snake to feed during the breeding season. Again, it is important to provide the female with adequate food to allow for egg production. About 90 days after copulation, the female will lay her eggs and coil tightly around them. Eggs are usually laid in the moist hide, and care must be taken to keep the moss slightly damp for good humidity.

Females can incubate the eggs maternally or the eggs can be removed and set up in a pre-warmed incubator. I keep the incubation chamber at 89 degrees F +/- a few degrees. A little fluctuation in temperature is not detrimental in most cases. As moisture in incubation media such as pearlite or vermiculite will vary it is best to leave that to the person with the eggs in hand, as no one level of moisture will work for everyone. I recommend leaving the incubation medium on the dry side. Eggs can be killed by too much moisture as well as too little, but it is easier to reverse the effects of too little moisture. Monitor the eggs weekly or as desired to make sure the eggs look healthy. Dead eggs that mold will not spread mold to healthy eggs, so, unless the eggs is easily removed, the egg can be left in with the others.

Eggs will hatch after about 2 months, depending on incubation conditions. Patience is important during egg incubation, and clutches of eggs can be messed up if the keeper is impatient. If all the eggs in a clutch have pipped except 1 or 2, these unpipped eggs may be gently opened, taking care not to injure the small snake inside. The hatchlings will emerge from the egg with plenty of yolk as energy supplies. I usually set them up similarly to the adults, except individually and in smaller cages. The snakes must have a feeling of security, with tight hide spots to feel comfortable. I usually wait a week or two after the hatchlings shed before offering food items. The hatchlings will grow quickly as they feed.


Well, that's the basics of children's python care and breeding. This species can be very rewarding to work with and is a great addition to any collection. Their small size and easy maintenance requirements make them great for beginners and advanced herpeteculturalist alike. Again, to be successful with this and other species of python, make sure you observe and listen to your snakes so their needs can be met.

Justin is excited about his animals and loves to share his enthusiasm and experience. Justin has been keeping reptiles for over 20 years and breeding them for the last 6 years. Justins collection includes children's pythons, womas, knob tailed and eyelash geckos, frilled lizards, snake necked turtles, green tree pythons and spotted pythons. Justins also runs a website called "Australian Addiction Reptiles"

TORTOISES: Do They Need To Drink?

by A.C. Highfield

There is a considerable amount of misunderstanding on the subject of the water requirements of tortoises. This is unfortunate, as a number of pathological conditions are directly related to the availability of environmental water, and to the general hydration status of reptiles such as tortoises. The most common health problems associated with a sub-optimum level of hydration or prolonged period of environmental water deprivation include an accumulation of solidified uric add in the renal system and bladder, articular gout, and kidney failure. All of these are extremely serious conditions and it should be noted that dehydration, even for short periods, can have grave long-term consequences.

Many people seem to believe that Mediterranean tortoises naturally acquire almost all of their fluid requirements from their food and that therefore they do not require additional drinking water. One recent book on Mediterranean tortoises even suggests that only sick tortoises voluntarily drink fresh water. It is highly regrettable that such dangerous misinformation is in circulation. This latter contention is simply not true, as direct observations of Testudo graeca and Testudo hermannii in the wild all too easily confirm. Both species are at their most active during or just after episodes of rain, and can be observed to "nose" along the ground, drinking from any available puddle. Tortoise Trust field trips have resulted in a number of observations of this kind. In Spain, France, Italy and Greece wild Testudo hermannii have been observed in some numbers to drink rainwater and to increase their activity level during wet weather, especially during summer thunderstorms, when the rain brings welcome relief from the searing heat and aridity of summer. In North Africa and Spain (T. graeca), Greece and Turkey (T. ibera), tortoises have been observed drinking from the edges of streams, from reed-beds and from puddles during episodic rain. Recently in Morocco, following the heaviest rain for many years, tortoise activity was as high as I have ever seen it and numerous individuals were observed drinking surface water. In many arid regions, tortoise activity ceases entirely during summer or in extended periods of drought, and only resumes when rain returns.

In southern Turkey, Spain, and Morocco, tortoises aestivate during summer because food and water availability is so poor. In southern Africa, it is commonplace to see Geochelone pardalis (leopard tortoises) drinking from streams and pools, and recently Moll and Klemens reported on the utilization of standing water pools by Malacochersus tornieri (pancake tortoises) in Tanzania. Mediterranean tortoises are indeed adapted to withstand a semi-arid environment. Their system of eliminating waste via uric acid rather than via urea is clear evidence of this. Uric acid can be eliminated using far lower levels of water "wastage" than can systems based on urea, such as those of mammals and amphibians. It is also significant that species from damp environments such as rainforests, e.g. Geochelone denticulata, feature a very different urinary biochemistry than do species from more arid environments such as Testudo graeca. In the former the ratio of excreted uric acid to ammonia is 6.7:6.0 and in the latter it is 51.9:4.1! Mediterranean tortoises can therefore eliminate nitrogenous waste products with very great water economy. Their behavior is also programmed to reflect this need not to waste precious water. It was noticeable that during the rainy period experienced in Morocco just a few months ago many traces of uric add deposits were in evidence as tortoises urinated while they drank. In an arid environment it pays not to dispose of vital body fluids unless you can be sure of replacing them. I am sure this behavior is also familiar to many pet tortoise keepers.

During a summer rain, tortoises will often drink and urinate simultaneously. The behavior can be stimulated in hot weather by lightly spraying the animals with a garden hose. Your tortoise is not sick if it behaves in this way. It is behaving exactly as its wild counterparts would and for a very sensible and biologically sound reason. Just because they are able to tolerate water deprivation for a substantial period is not reason to deprive them of it deliberately or permanently. Water deprivation is a sub-optimal state which, if extended beyond certain limits, results in serious health problems. Food alone is not normally an adequate source of the total water requirement of semi-arid habitat reptiles. We have seen several cases recently in which tortoises reared on the basis proposed, i.e. no access to fresh water and an expectation that all fluid requirements can be met entirely from food, have accumulated serious concentrations of uric acid in the bladder. This is hardly surprising and is precisely what one would expect from such a regime, given a fundamental understanding of tortoise biology and ecology. In the long term such animals can also be expected to develop kidney disease and articular gout.

In the wild, during hot and rain-free summers, aestivation or semi-aestivation occurs. There are several triggers to aestivation. Lack of food and environmental water are major factors, as is temperature. In Morocco aestivation typically begins when temperatures exceed 29-30C. Peak tortoise activity in the south of Morocco typically occurs in the temperature range 20-26C, decreasing as temperatures rise beyond 28C. During aestivation tortoises maintain themselves below ground, in burrows which exhibit a reasonably stable microclimate. In these burrows temperatures are much lower than those above ground and the relative humidity is very much higher. Combined with reduced (practically zero) activity, these factors result in a vastly reduced rate of fluid loss via exhalation and little or no need to urinate. The advice of the Tortoise Trust on this topic is very clear. Fresh water should be provided to all tortoises on a regular basis. Even true desert species such as Testudo kleinmanni, Geochelone sulcata, and Gopherus agassizi will drink given the opportunity. Our own exceedingly healthy breeding group of T. kleinmanni are provided with fresh water daily, and often take advantage of it. The suggestion that only sick animals drink is absolute nonsense and is unsupported by any ecological, biochemical or veterinary study we have been able to trace. There are, however, literally dozens of readily available reliable and authoritative references which support the opposite view.

Reprinted from The Cold Blooded News The Newsletter of the Colorado Herpetological Society Volume 29, Number 9; September, 2002

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