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How do reptiles use enrichment?

When you think of reptiles, what do you normally think about? Many people think creepy or gross or even scary. Personally, I think they are adorable and fascinating. But people are just starting to explore their intelligence. Scientists have started researching the benefits of varied enrichment and training for reptiles. I am a member of the Ambassador Animals Department here at Zoo Atlanta. We have a large number of reptiles and have started trying to add more variety to their enrichment. It can be so rewarding to watch them as they start to figure out new enrichment items.

So, what is enrichment? It is anything that can provide mental or physical stimulation for animals. Zoo Atlanta has an extensive enrichment program, in place year-round for all species. Here at the Zoo, we often focus on goal-based enrichment. Meaning that we start by determining what behavior we want to elicit and then finding an activity for that behavior. The goals and behaviors differ based on that animal’s natural history. Sound complicated? Well, let’s go through some examples.

Nonda is one of our prehensile-tailed skinks. This species of skink is native to the Solomon Islands and spends all its time in trees. They can manipulate their tails to help them hold on to branches while they climb. Nonda is relatively active (and very sassy), so enrichment is a big help as it gives her an activity. One of the main behaviors we focus on for all our animals is foraging. We want to help simulate natural feeding as much as possible. Prehensile-tailed skinks would climb through the trees looking for food in their natural habitat. At Zoo Atlanta, we try to simulate that with Nonda’s produce on kabobs. Since she has so many climbing structures in her area, we can hang kabobs in crazy places and let her climb around. Kabobs not only meet foraging goals, but they also keep Nonda active as she searches for snacks.

Fina is one of our ambassador gopher tortoises. We lovingly call her the queen of ambassadors because she has been an ambassador animal and meeting guests at Zoo Atlanta since 1979! We may not give her a crown, but we give her some beautiful salad. Gopher tortoises are a keystone species, meaning an animal that is vital to maintaining balance in the ecosystem, in the southeastern United States. They are known for digging huge burrows utilized by a wide variety of species. We want to make sure we give such an important queen high quality enrichment. A behavior that we focus on for tortoises is exercise – just trying to get them to keep moving and exploring. Since gopher tortoises are experts at digging, we try to provide enrichment so they can dig and explore. This involves incorporating large leaf piles, sandbox time, or filling their hides with mulch. Not only do the tortoises move around to dig through their piles, but leaf piles and new substrate also have lots of exciting new smells.

Enrichment is not only rewarding for our animals, but for our team. There is no better feeling than working on a new enrichment device and then watching the animal interact. It gives us an opportunity to be creative and honestly have fun. Hopefully next time you visit the Zoo, you can see reptiles interacting with all their exciting enrichment.

Rachael R.
Keeper I, Ambassador Animals

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