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How do reptiles and amphibians beat the heat?

Good day! Robert from the Herpetology Department here to talk about how we help the reptiles and amphibians at Zoo Atlanta beat the heat.

Why should these animals need to beat the heat, you ask? After all, don’t all the scaly and slimy things like it hot since they are cold-blooded? Well, the term “cold-blooded” has really fallen out of fashion. The first reason is a simple one: If you cut open a lizard, it doesn’t bleed icicles. They have normal blood that isn’t particularly cold. The proper term for how most reptile and amphibian body temperatures are managed is “ectothermic.” This means that these animals rely on the environment around them to regulate their body temperature, unlike mammals which produce heat internally to stay at the right temperature. But, this doesn’t mean they need to always be hot, just that to be at their thermal best, they have to take advantage of what the world around them offers. Too hot? Take a stroll into the shade. Too cold? Sit in the sun for a few minutes.

Ectotherms (the name for ectothermic animals like most fish, reptiles, and amphibians) don’t always want or need to be hot to live their lives and can overheat just like mammals like humans can if they can’t escape extreme temperatures.

While at the Zoo, many of the reptiles and amphibians live inside Scaly Slimy Spectacular in climate-controlled spaces, and many animals spend the summer outdoors. For those, we try to employ some options for beating the heat. This includes having shade options, either natural or human-made, in their habitats. For example, you may notice the large tunnel in Rinca the Komodo dragon’s outdoor space. This, plus all of the plants around the habitat, give him plenty of opportunities to duck out of the sun for a heat break.

For Rinca and many of our outdoor tortoises, like Shuffles and Corky the Aldabra tortoises, we will also run sprinklers or misters during the hottest part of the day to simulate a bit of rain and to let them cool down. You may have also noticed that the Aldabra tortoises have a big pool to soak in, which Shuffles often takes advantage of, even getting comfortable enough to nap underwater in! They also have a mud wallow in which to beat the heat. Corky especially seems to enjoy getting a cool mud bath!

For a few of our animals, even just the normal mid-70s indoor temperatures we humans tend to like are on the warm side. For those animals, like our eastern hellbenders, we have units that chill the habitat water down into the 60s so they don’t “bake” in the balmy 70s.

Next time you’re visiting Zoo Atlanta, be sure to have a look and think about how all of the animals keep cool while trying to keep cool yourselves!

Robert L. Hill
Curator of Herpetology

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