Endotherms vs. ectotherms and their care
Over the past two months, I have transitioned from working in the Herpetology Department to working with the feathered relatives of reptiles in the Bird Department. Shifting from one department to another is exciting in that you get to share your unique perspective with a whole new group of people and animals. Each day is an opportunity to learn something new, as well as apply something you may have done differently in the past.
There are many general similarities in the day-to-day duties between caring for reptile and amphibians vs. birds. For example: cleaning, diet-prep, feeding, enrichment, monitoring health and behavior, veterinary check-ups, etc. However, there are also many differences between working with these groups of animals. The biggest difference lies within their biology. Reptiles and amphibians are ectotherms, while birds are endotherms. An ectotherm (reptile/amphibian) relies primarily on its external environment to regulate the temperature of its body. Endotherms (birds) are able to regulate their body temperatures by producing heat within the body.
Why does this make a big difference when caring for these animals? As a bird keeper, the order of operations for your day is dictated by when the birds need to eat. Endotherms (birds) need a regular intake of food in order to produce the body heat needed to function properly. Most of our birds get fed twice a day, while most of our snakes get fed once every two weeks. From our tiny violet-backed starlings to our massive cassowary, two meals a day keeps them healthy and active. Our reticulated python, however, may not be as active as she may just have eaten a large meal that will last her for weeks! Another big difference between caring for endotherms vs. ectotherms is the way that animal habitats are set up. Most of our reptile and amphibian areas are indoors, which allows us to better regulate environmental conditions such as temperature/humidity, which are vital to the health of ectotherms. In the Bird Department, most habitats are outdoors. As long as the birds get regular supplies of food, they are able to withstand more variable fluctuations in environmental conditions. With this being said, there are always exceptions. Our flock of Chilean flamingos can handle very low temperatures, but Cecil the cassowary, being from a tropical environment, is much less pleased in the cold. As the oldest male cassowary in the world, he is entitled to special treatment to keep him comfortable. We have birds, reptiles and amphibians from all around the world who have adapted to live in a wide variety of habitats. At the end of the day, whether in Birds, Herpetology, or Mammals, we do our best to ensure that all of our animals are getting the best possible care.
Keeper I, Birds