It’s no secret that I love my job. Becoming a reptile keeper at the Knoxville Zoo last year was a dream come true. Incredible things happen there every day, and I’m so honored to be a part of it.
We have a new exhibit. It’s a series of exhibits, actually; a building with lots of beautifully designed enclosures that house lizards. Many of the animals are very new to to our public, and most of them are new to me, as well.
One of these new animals is the Chinese Crocodile Lizard (Shinisaurus crocodilurus).
This species gets its name from its crazy crocodile appearance. All those bumps in its skin are osteoderms (literally, “bone-skin”). Tiny bits of bone offer protection and camouflage. Bumps break up the outline and allow the animal to hide. Its coloration is so cryptic that often, I have trouble seeing them even when I’m looking right AT them! It’s a semi-aquatic species, primarily found in China.
One cool fact? It’s monotypic; the genus consists of a single species. It is also endangered. Experts estimate fewer than a thousand animals left in the wild, with populations so splintered and small that their long term viability is in serious question. Some individual colonies have as few as ten animals.
Reproduction is slow for these guys. After a winter cooling period, the pair mates. The female then carries the offspring for 8-14 months. Let that sink in for a second. A lizard that weighs less than a pound can be gravid for over a year! Shinisaurus are live-bearers, which is an expensive reproductive strategy. Much of the female’s resources will be allocated to her offspring, so in a bad year, she may not survive long after the birth . No wonder they’re having such a hard time adapting to a changing world!
Anyway, a few weeks ago, the Shinisaurus keeper was doing afternoon checks. And he found…
This little guy was so well-camouflaged that we almost didn’t see him. She birthed in the water, and the babies found safe places next to the walls with only their little yellow heads visible above the water line. It was pretty exciting. We left her alone as much as we could. Every hour or so, we’d check to see if there were any new surprises. And sometimes there were.
Shinisaurus eat insects, worms, snails, and the like. They are consummate little carnivores. The three babies are happily eating crickets and other feeder insects, and they’re growing like crazy.
The babies are being raised off-exhibit for now. They can achieve adult size in about a year. Their rapid development is probably one reason there are still a few of them left in the wild. Mom is also doing well. She’s having a well-earned rest before she is reintroduced to the male.
Does anybody wonder why I love to go to work? Congratulations to my co-worker, Brad! What a great addition to our collection!
*Original version published at BECOMING CLICHE. Reposted, in full, with permission of the author.