Perhaps they were inspired by new mom Sweet Pea and her shark ray pups, or maybe it was countless human moms pushing strollers by exhibits. Or it could be they were simply swept away with the romance of spring.
Whatever the case, a number of reptiles and amphibians at the Newport Aquarium are in the process of becoming new parents — the first time these particular species have reproduced at the facility.
Herpetologists have eggs incubating both on- and offsite for three species of dart frogs, ringed map turtles and panther chameleons. According to herpetologist Ryan Dumas, some of the mating pairs have spent several years together, so the sudden uptick in activity came as a bit of a surprise. He said sometimes it takes animals time to get comfortable in their environment as well as to find the right mate for things to start progressing.
“Spring is a very big time for animal reproduction for a lot of things,” he said. “Animals can feel barometric pressure even though they’re not in their native habitat; they can definitely feel the seasons more than we can, and they know when spring arrives. Spring usually … is accompanied with a lot of low-pressure systems, so you get a lot of storms. Storms for amphibians are big turn-ons, and they start making noise.”
“You can go down to the frog bog and, after our misting systems kick on, you can hear all the dart frogs will start singing,” herpetologist Erin Muldoon said.
Something spurred romance in the frog bog, apparent in the several sets of eggs she discovered. The first set produced only one living tadpole, currently in the nursery. She’s now watching a second set of 11 eggs, which will take somewhere between 12 and 18 days to hatch, then an additional month to completely transform from tadpole to frog.
“And I have no idea what species they are, because I have multiple species of dart frogs all in the same tank,” she said “All the tadpoles will look exactly the same until they get their front legs. So that’s when they first get their color, so we’ll know what it is.”
While dart frogs are known for poison they secrete through their skin, Muldoon explained that the dart frogs on exhibit are non-toxic. She said in the wild, dart frogs gain toxicity from eating certain poisonous beetles and ants, while in the Newport facility they’re only fed non-toxic crickets, fruit flies and bean beetles.
“They’re harmless,” she said, “(but) they don’t really know that. They still think they’re big and bad. The most poisonous vertebrate on the planet is actually a dart frog. It’s the golden dart frog. So they can be really dangerous in the wild.”
From the extremely toxic to the very rare, Dumas said he’s especially excited about eggs slated to hatch soon from a breeding pair of ringed map turtles currently living in their offsite facility. He explained that the rare species claim only one single habitat on the planet: the Pearl River in Louisiana. Currently, he said, fewer than 40 are housed in captivity in accredited Association of Zoos and Aquariums facilities within the U.S.
Since the species is considered “vulnerable,” they’re included as part of the Species Survival Plan (SSP), which oversees breeding of animals. Newport’s current breeding pair was recommended due to their optimal genetic viability.
“We have at least four fertile eggs from those guys,” he said. “We bred them here. In our offsite animal facility, we have a little set-up for these guys, and their sole intention is to have them reproduce to add numbers so we have more in professional care. So these guys will remain under professional care whether it’s with us or another institution.”
Dumas explained that they look at the ringed map turtles born in captivity at AZA institutions as a founder population. That ensures they always have a healthy population of animals within zoos and aquariums if something catastrophic were to happen in nature.
“And if we can keep reproducing, and other institutions can keep reproducing the species, it could potentially lead to something where we could release animals back into the wild,” he said.
“That’s the ultimate goal — to repopulate and repatriate populations of this species.”
Back onsite at Canyon Falls, the resident female panther chameleon, Frenchy, produced 22 eggs with daddy Coolio. Dumas said they’d attempted to mate the two in the past, but chameleons tend to fight when put together for extended periods of time, whether it’s male with male or male with female. After discovering the pregnancy, Dumas kept the diminutive female (unofficially named Frenchy) behind the scenes to give her the opportunity to lay the clutch (the name for a group of chameleon eggs). Because incubation takes 8 to 12 months, he said, they won’t be looking for babies to hatch until November at the earliest.
“Incubation can be a fragile process, as well. Just because we have so many eggs doesn’t mean they’ll all hatch,” he said. “If there’s any problem genetically with the embryos in the eggs, they can just go bad and we’d have to remove them. So we try to incubate them in the beginning. So, with luck, we’re looking at babies around Thanksgiving.”
Above all, Dumas stresses that the facility is not reproducing animals with reckless abandon. While it’s taken some time for some species to see the fruit of their labor, he said, all pairings were planned for specific genetic uses.
“We have 22 eggs incubating, and that’s more than enough if they hatch,” he said. “If they all hatch, we’ll have plenty, so we won’t put the male and female back together — so we’re responsibly breeding our animals as well.”
Other species of reptiles also show great promise of reproduction, Dumas said. The false water cobras produced one pair of eggs, which failed to hatch, but they continue to breed. The yellow tree monitor lizards also seem to be mating as of late. If successful, it would be the first birth in captivity, as the species was discovered only 11 years ago on a remote island in Indonesia.
As humans further encroach on animal habitat, Dumas said, more species are being discovered. But, sadly, it's because they're being crowded out of their homes.
“Out of everything, habitat fragmentation is the leading cause of population decline in nearly all animals — it’s beating everything else by a wide margin,” he said. “That’s what zoos and aquariums are for. We’re here to inspire people to see these types of animals and get excited about it.
“When I was young, I loved the reptiles at the zoo and I want to bring more reptiles here. Inspiring young people to get interested and care about these types of animals is why we’re here. It’s why we come to work every day.”