Educational Series: Imperiled, Amazing Reptiles Deserve Our Help

By Nick Engelfried
With their scaly skin, penetrating gaze, and some species’ sharp claws or venomous fangs, reptiles may not be the world’s most cute or cuddly creatures. However, despite being radically different from the dogs, cats, and other mammals most of us are used to interacting with, reptiles include some of the most truly amazing animals on the planet.

Reptiles are the oldest group of truly terrestrial (land-dwelling) vertebrates, or animals with a backbone. The first reptiles evolved more than three hundred million years ago from an ancient ancestor that would have somewhat resembled today’s salamanders. Unlike salamanders, frogs, and other amphibians–which live in water for at least one stage of their lives–most reptiles spend all or most of their lives on dry land, and even those species that live in water return to land for a significant part of their life cycle. Even sea turtles, one of the most wholly aquatic groups of modern reptiles, must return temporarily to land to lay their eggs.

Because many are small, elusive, or confined to tropical regions, reptiles tend not to get as much publicity as warm-blooded, furry mammals. However, even today there are many more species of reptiles than mammals–about 8,700 versus 5,100. This incredible diversity is divided into four major groups: snakes and lizards; crocodiles, alligators, and their relatives; turtles and tortoises; and the tuatara.

By far the largest group of reptiles are lizards and snakes, member of the order Squamata. With over 5,000 lizard species and 3,000 snakes, these groups together comprise the large majority of living reptiles. While they are found in almost every terrestrial habitat other than the polar regions, snakes and lizards reach their greatest abundance in tropical rainforests and other warm habitats near the Equator.

From tiny geckos small enough to perch on your finger, to the huge Komodo dragon–a member of the monitor family that can weigh well over 150 pounds–lizards are a truly amazing group. They include some of the reptiles most familiar to people in temperate regions like the northern United States. An example is the western fence lizard, a small, gray-bodied reptile with a bright blue underside found in dry habitats throughout most of the Western U.S.

While most lizards scurry over the ground or up into vegetation on four legs, one group known as glass lizards has lost their legs entirely. This family took an evolutionary path similar to snakes, another group of lizard-descendants so specialized they are regarded by most people as an entirely separate group of reptiles. They range from the small garter snakes found in many backyards and rattlesnakes from throughout the Southwestern United States, to gigantic anacondas and pythons in many tropical countries.

One group of modern reptiles confined almost entirely to the tropics is the crocodilians: alligators, crocodiles, caimins, and their relatives. Reminiscent of the dinosaurs that once dominated the world, this group includes some of the few reptiles big enough to be any danger to humans. However, while you should always have a healthy respect for large wild animals, most alligators, crocodiles, and other big reptiles want nothing to do with humans. In contrast to their fearsome reputation, these animals are actually devoted parents. Female American alligators, for example, build and guard nests to shelter their eggs which they defend against predators.

With the exception of certain lizards, all the reptiles mentioned so far are mostly or entirely carnivorous, feeding mainly on insects or small mammals depending on the size of the reptile species. However, members of the order Chelonia–turtles, tortoises, and their relatives–include many vegetarians as well. With their slow, lumbering movements these hard-shelled reptiles certainly can’t chase a mouse and may appear comical. However, their at times clumsy-looking shells have been a recipe for evolutionary success, allowing turtles and tortoises to survive as a group for many millions of years. Today, small freshwater turtles can be found throughout much of the temperate United States, while the Southwest is home to desert tortoises. The largest modern turtle ever recorded was a leatherback sea turtle that washed up on a beach in Wales in 1988. This huge reptile was nearly nine feet long and weighed over two thousand pounds.

The reptile order least known to the general public is Sphenodontia, with only a single living species. That species, the tuatara, looks like a large lizard with a row of spines down its back, and lives only on the island nation of New Zealand. Tens of millions of years ago other Sphenodonts roamed the Earth, but most went extinct around the same time as dinosaurs. Despite having outlived all their Sphenodont relatives, tuataras nearly went extinct themselves after European colonists settled on New Zealand bringing with them a host of invasive mammal species like rats. Rats devour tuatara eggs and soon wiped out the animals across most of their range. Today tuataras survive only on 32 small islands free of introduced pests.

Invasive species are only one of many threats facing modern reptiles. As with most groups of animals, the largest short-term threat to their survival is habitat destruction. From tropical rainforests cleared for palm oil plantations and cattle ranching, to Southwest deserts under threat from oil and gas development, ecosystems reptiles depend on are under attack all over the globe. It is impossible to say exactly how many species are endangered, as only a fraction of the thousands in existence have been thoroughly studied for conservation concerns. However, of those which have been studied nearly one thousand are at risk.

In addition to habitat loss, climate change caused by burning fossil fuels and other activities threatens reptiles in the long term. Because they are cold-blooded, reptiles depend on outside temperatures to regulate their internal body temperature and so are especially vulnerable to negative impacts from changing weather patterns. If global temperatures change too much too quickly, many reptile species will be unable to adapt.

Reptiles are also targeted by animal traffickers and poachers. Populations of some rare species have barely been described by scientists before traffickers swooped in to sell them on the lucrative illegal animal market. An example is the earless monitor, a large lizard from Indonesia known only from a few sightings prior to 2012, when a new population was discovered in habitat being considered for a palm oil plantation. Researchers documented the species’ presence–a necessary step toward understanding how habitat loss would affect its survival–only to find they had inadvertently tipped off poachers who were soon capturing the animals and selling them online. Because of the prevalence of illegal reptile trafficking it’s best never to buy a pet reptile unless you know for certain it was bred humanely and in captivity.

Unfortunately, reptile trafficking isn’t confined to tropical countries. In the United States alligators and some freshwater turtles are targeted by poachers and sold domestically or abroad for their meat. Meanwhile “rattlesnake roundup” contests in some parts of the country encourage the wholesale of these ecologically important reptile species for their meat and skins. While some states have banned rattlesnake roundups, the practice is still allowed in Georgia, Alabama, Texas, and Oklahoma.

By protecting reptile habitat from development, cracking down on poaching and practices like rattlesnake roundups, and taking action to curb climate change before it’s too late, we can ensure a better future for reptiles. While they may not be as cute as many warm-blooded animals, these incredibly diverse animals are no less worthy of our concern.

Photo credit: Sid Mosdell

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Nick Engelfried Writes About Animals, the Environment, and Conservation for the ForceChange network

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