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FAQs on Reptiles and Amphibians

How do you tell if a snake is venomous?

You can't tell if a snake is venomous just by looking at it unless you are familiar with the characteristics of different types of snakes. First of all, if you don't know, leave it alone. Second, even if you do know, leave it alone. The vast majority of all snakebites, venomous or otherwise, occur when someone tries to capture a snake. In the United States, there are 4 major types of venomous snakes: rattlesnakes, water moccasins, copperheads, and coral snakes. In other countries there are other kinds as well. But all snakes will bite if threatened. Get a good field guide with color pictures, written for the area you are exploring or visiting, before you head out.

Why are people afraid of snakes?

Most people who are afraid have never seen a snake up close and are afraid of the terrible things they have heard about snakes. When they get a chance to see and touch a snake, as many people do here at the museum, they find out just how ridiculous some of the stories are. For example:

  • Snakes are not slimy. Snakes are cool and dry and covered with scales, just like lizards. Some amphibians, like salamanders and frogs, are slimy because they need to keep their thin skins moist. This is not true of snakes.
  • Most snakes are not venomous. All snakes can bite, swim, drink water, and climb.
  • Snakes do not have eyelids. Their eyes are protected by a clear scale like a contact lens. So they cannot blink or close their eyes even when they are asleep. Snakes cannot "hypnotize" their prey by staring at it.
  • Snakes do not sting, lick, or poison with their tongues. The tongue is a super-sensitive organ that permits the snake to make sense of its surrounding by combining taste and scent cues.
  • Snakes shed their skins as a regular part of growing. Like all reptiles, snakes continue to grow throughout their lives. There is nothing magic or special about a shed snakeskin, any more than there is about old hair or fingernail clippings.   
  • Snakes do not perceive people as prey and do not chase people or ambush them. Snakes only strike people in self-defense.

How do snakes reproduce?

Pretty much the way all other vertebrates do. Snakes are all either male or female, though it may be hard to tell which is which unless you're trained, or unless you see the snakes in the act of mating. The male has two structures called hemipenes, either of which he may use in mating with the female. The female may either lay eggs (oviparous) or retain the eggs in her body until they hatch and the young emerge alive (ovoviviparous). Baby snakes are ready to go as soon as they are hatched or born. There is no parental care in terms of feeding, though the females of a few species may remain for a few days after hatching.

I really like turtles. Where can I get a pet one?

We do not ever recommend wild-caught pets. You may think you are being nice to an animal, but often you are condemning it to a slow death by starvation. An animal kept by itself will die without reproducing, leaving the species poorer. Unfortunately, keeping a wild animal as if it were a pet is most often cruel and abusive to the animal. If you really like turtles, or any other wildlife animal, we recommend that you forget treating them like pets and learn to value them as wildlife.

There are several organizations and people in the area who work to rehabilitate injured or ill animals and provide care as needed. Volunteering with these will give you the training you need to help wild animals without trying to turn them into pets. For more information, see Melissa Kaplan's page on Reptile Rescue Groups.

Why do I get lizards in my house? Or garage? Or laundry room?

As house guests go, they're quiet, don't eat much, and never ask to be taken to the mall, so look on the bright side. Lizards come inside for several reasons:

  • The temperature inside is better than the temperature outside. Like all other reptiles, lizards are ectothermic, which means they can't regulate their body temperature. Very hot and very cold days are both tough for them, and they will seek relief in areas with better temperatures -- like inside a house or building
  • You're providing food for them, whether you know it or not. Many lizards eat a wide range of live insects and other invertebrates. If you are plagued by flies, roaches or other pests in your house, lizards can be much more effective than insecticides. The bad part is that insecticides will kill lizards (and insecticides are often dangerous to people, too).
  • It's safer inside. Many animals prey on lizards, including other lizards, snakes, birds, and mammals. Most of these aren't in your house. 
  • It was brought inside by a pet such as a dog or cat. Domestic pets can wipe out wild populations of lizards. Sometimes the lizards are stunned rather than dead, though, and hide in safe areas of the house to recover. A lizard in your house won't hurt anything. If you don't like it, though, carefully catch it and release it outside. It's best to catch them by putting a box or jar over them, sliding paper or cardboard underneath, and carrying them outside without ever touching the lizard. (Not because the lizard will hurt you, but because it's too easy for you to hurt the lizard.)

I tried to catch a lizard and its tail broke off and flopped around. Now I feel terrible. Did I kill the lizard?

Probably not. Some lizards can lose their tails when a predator grabs them. The nerves and muscles in the tail continue to operate, making in flop around so that the predator will think that there is another prey animal right there. This often gives the lizard a chance to escape. It's no fun for the lizard, though. Many will grow new tails, though these are never as long or perfect as the ones they lost. Never ever try to catch a lizard by the tail. 

Are lizards venomous?

Generally not, though lizards can and do bite when they are threatened The exceptions are two closely related species: the Gila monster and the beaded lizard. These live in the deserts of Arizona and Mexico (though they do not make it to the San Diego or Baja California areas). You can't mistake these lizards for anything else. They are big, heavy lizards with round scales like beads, and are patterned in orange and black. They will not chase people, but they can bite with great speed and strength when they are threatened. The bite is painful, and the venom is enough to make most people feel sick for a while. Never try to pick one up, as this is how most people get bitten.

No other lizards are venomous. Period. Their bites can hurt, though, so it's best to leave them alone.

Do lizards shed their skins like snakes?

Lizards shed their skins, but not like snakes. Snakes shed their old skins all at once, neatly turning the old skin inside out like the finger of a glove. Lizards lose their old skins in patches and can look very raggedy for a few days. Both snakes and lizards grow a new skin under the old one first, so they are never skinless. A snakeskin or lizard-skin belt or hatband is always made by killing and skinning an animal, never from the shed skin.

How do you tell the difference between toads and frogs?

Frogs and toads are terms that originated in the United Kingdom to describe their frog diversity. In this part of the world, it is a simple difference. They have a frog and a toad species. So, the description of a typical "frog" and "toad" is regional. Toads are a type of frog and in many tropical areas Toad Family members look like a typical frog, with thin skin and live in moist habitats. Here in the United States, we have the typical "frog" and "toad" species, but we also have some examples of species that don't fit the mold (for example, Spadefoot Frogs, which are frogs that looks like a toads). all toads are FROGS, but not all frogs are toads. The terms "frog" and "toad" can be best thought of as descriptions of lifestyle... something that we call ecomorphology. Terrestrial adapted "toads" have waxy, glandular skin, short legs, and like to burrow. Aquatic "frogs" lack waxy skin glands, have longer legs for jumping and swimming, and live in or near water.

Can you get warts from handling toads?

No. You can get wet, though. Many toads will release a spray of urine when they are picked up (it's a way of repelling predators). The "warts" that toads have are not really warts, but are normal thick places on their skin. Warts that humans get are small tumors that are the result of viruses. There is no connection.

What's the difference between a salamander and a lizard?

Lots. For one thing, they're not even closely related. A salamander is an amphibian, and a lizard is a reptile. Salamanders do not have scales, and lizards always do. About the only thing they have in common is the general shape of their bodies. Salamanders are very fascinating animals, but may be hard to find in this area except during rainy times. Some salamanders are completely lungless and depend completely on their skins for oxygen exchange. Larval salamanders resemble the adults, but have gills instead of lungs.