Meet Charro, our new resident iguana!

The Butterfly Center recently acquired a new iguana.  His name is Charro (which means “cowboy” – as in “charro beans”) and we believe he is between 5 and 10 years old.  For the time being, he is housed in a cage in the rainforest area.  We may eventually let him loose to wander freely in the Center, once he is thoroughly acclimated – but for now, he seems to be content (and is particularly visible to patrons) in his cage.  Keeping him confined does allow us to find him easily in order to take him outside for some exercise and sunshine on a daily basis. 

We’ve had several free-ranging iguanas in the Center over the years.  It is a perfect place for them – much better than the situations in which pet iguanas are typically found.  Indeed, all of our resident iguanas have been pets that outgrew the space and/or time their owners could provide them.  I think it is unfortunate that these creatures continue to be sold as pets:  what starts as a cute little green lizard ends up as a small dinosaur – and most people are not prepared to handle the latter.

But as a result of all the iguanas we’ve had, I’ve learned more about them than I ever expected to know.  They are actually very interesting and personable creatures!  If you’d like to learn more yourself, read on – or check out the excellent information at the website of the Green Iguana Society.

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Galapagos Island Iguana
Creative Commons License photo credit: Ansgar Berhorn

Iguanas are in the same family (Iguanidae) as the little green or brown anole lizards we see in our gardens here in the southern USA.  The most common species available through the pet trade is the common or green iguana.  Green iguanas (the scientific name is Iguana iguana) are common in tropical areas from Mexico to South America.  In their native habitat, they often sit sunning themselves high up in trees, especially along rivers.  If a hawk or eagle flies over (both are major predators of iguanas) they will fling themselves into the river below.  They are excellent swimmers!   There are several other species of iguana, including the spiny or black iguana (also common in Central America, especially near the coast), and of course the famous marine iguanas and land iguanas of the Galapagos Islands (both species believed to have evolved from green iguanas). 

summer-09-042Baby iguanas are about 8 inches or so long and bright green.  But they soon get much larger, some growing to over 6 feet long.  As they mature, they lose their bright green color, and males in particular gain “secondary sexual characteristics.”  People often ask about Charro’s large jowls (the big lumps on either side of his head).  We like to say that they are like biceps on men – enticing to females and intimidating to other males!  The jowls, large dewlap (flap of skin below the chin), and the orangish skin color are all characters seen in mature male iguanas.  Male iguanas also develop fatty deposits on top of their head.  Mature females are slimmer and duller colored, with smaller jowls and dewlap and no head lumps. 

Although much less colorful than the babies, adult iguanas can change color up to a point.  We’ve noticed that Charro gets darker when he is taken out into the sunshine, and lighter when he’s back in his cage.  Iguanas use their color to regulate their body temperature – they darken up to absorb more heat.  An iguana’s color can also indicate its mood or stress levels (sometimes their colors become more contrasting when threatened or frightened).  Male iguanas in particular become more colorful when they are in their breeding season.  The orange becomes brighter, and the black stripes on the tail, etc., more pronounced.

Iguanas apparently have excellent vision, and can see colors as well as we do.  They also have a “third eye” (called the parietal eye), a clear scale on the top of their head.  This organ senses light and dark, and alerts them to aerial predators.  

Male iguanas in particular develop pointed “tubercular scales” on the back of the neck, and have a ridge of flexible spines along the back.  I have not been able to find any known function for these, beyond ornament.  Quite a few of Charro’s ridge spines have been broken off, and we are not sure whether they will grow back.  Iguanas do molt their skin periodically – unlike snakes, which shed their entire skin at once, iguanas lose theirs in patches over several weeks. 

Iguanas can live for over 15 years, but usually don’t make it that long in the wild because other animals (including humans) love to eat them!  In fact, they are sometimes called “chicken of the trees” or “bamboo chicken.” Their eggs are also eaten, and their skin is sometimes used for belts or boots, etc.

summer-09-040Iguanas themselves are strict vegetarians, which is rather unusual among lizards (most eat insects or other small animals).  For us, of course, it is fortunate that iguanas have no interest in eating butterflies!  We feed Charro healthy salads of vegetables and fruits.  Greeny leafy vegetables such as collard greens are especially good for him.   According to the Green Iguana Society website, although iguanas will eat almost anything you offer them, they should not be given any animal protein!

Because iguanas, especially the males, are quite territorial, we have been advised (by none less than the director of the Houston Zoo) to keep only one iguana at a time.  Indeed, many years ago when we had a male and female, they had a tremendous battle and the male was badly injured.  Although in nature you may see several iguanas in close proximity, they are not social creatures and really only get together to mate. 

Long-time patrons of the Butterfly Center will remember some of our previous iguanas.  Sidney died in 2004 at the age of 14, after more than three years in the Center.  A large, stocky and colorful iguana, he acted more like a dog than a lizard; he was so friendly that he would crawl into people’s laps to be petted.  When Sidney died, we had an autopsy done; the vet told us he died of a heart attack (apparently a common cause of death in older, captive, male iguanas!) 

Gandalf was not quite as friendly as Sidney, but was a truly magnificent specimen.  Unlike Sidney and Charro, he had a complete, unbroken tail that was exceedingly long (Gandalf was about 6 feet long including the tail.)  Unfortunately, after several years of climbing all over the Center, he made an unfortunate misstep.  We believe he slipped off one of the planters on the second floor and crashed onto the cement floor around the cenote.   This undoubtedly happens in nature as well: during one field season in Costa Rica I used to admire a large iguana that sunned himself every day on a high and slender branch of a cecropia tree along the Puerto Viejo river.  One day I noticed that the branch had broken off…I never saw that particular iguana again. 

Stretch immediately preceded Charro.  He was never a happy or friendly iguana, and died of old age/ill health earlier this year (2009), less than two years after he came to us.   Charro was acquired for us earlier this summer by Olga, one of the visitor services staff who has a friend at the Brownsville Zoo, Charro’s previous home.
 
From our previous experiences we’ve learned that individual iguanas, once you get to know them, definitely have personalities!  So far Charro seems to be a very laid-back, tolerant, and well-behaved iguana.  However, we always impress upon visitors that iguanas can bite, although it is usually a last resort and they usually give plenty of warning.  However, when it happens, an iguana bite can be serious.  They have lots of very sharp little teeth – it’s like getting slashed with a hacksaw.

Fortunately, we have learned to read the signs:  iguanas typically give behavioral clues about their mood.  When an iguana is comfortable and happy (for example when we pour water over Charro’s head, something he seems to particularly enjoy) it will stand up on its front legs, raising its head in the air.  Most iguanas also enjoy being petted, particularly behind the head, or under the chin and jowls, or along the back.  Sometimes they close their eyes in pleasure, leaning into the caress just like a dog or cat, and even look as if they are smiling!

An angry iguana, however, is quite fearsome.  If frightened or seriously irritated, it will typically turn its side to whatever is bothering it and stand up on all four legs, apparently trying to maximize its size.  It may also walk forward in a stiff-legged manner, sometimes opening its mouth and wagging its tail.  This is not a friendly wag – it means the iguana may whip with its tail or even bite!  At this point it’s time to back off and give the iguana some space.

People sometimes voice concerns about iguanas and salmonella.  Yes, some iguanas can carry it.  So after handling Charro or any other reptile, for that matter, it is a good idea to wash one’s hands thoroughly, especially before eating.

summer-09-043If you don’t see Charro in the Butterfly Center when you visit, check outside by the Kugel Ball.  A number of docents have volunteered to take him out for a “sunbath” on sunny days.  Iguanas need the heat, as well as the UV A and B wavelengths provided by the sun’s rays (or the simulated sunshine provided by a UV lamp), to get warm enough to move and to eat/digest food, as well as to manufacture vitamin D (just like humans).  We try to get Charro outside for at least half an hour, several times a week.  It’s also a good way to let people see him up close!

Any of you iguana experts out there – I’d be happy to hear feedback about any aspect of iguanas and their care.  We’re always learning about them!

Road Trip!

Many people come to our Museum for a visit.  In fact, last year, we had over 2.5 million visits. But have you ever had a museum come to you for a visit?  Well, the Houston Museum of Natural Science can do that, too!  The Museum has several different outreach programs where we bring specimens to students for some hands-on learning. 

Recently the Museum brought its El Paso Corporation Wildlife on Wheels to Kipp (Knowledge is Power Program) Dream Elementary School. In this picture, you can see some of the specimens used during our Reptiles and Amphibians topic. Snake skin, tortoise shells, fossil casts (center), coprolites and even caiman skin are valuable teaching tools and definitely more portable and safer than a large, live caiman!

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In this picture below you can see some of the cutest kindergartners touching a Surinam Toad. They were very attentive and while some were nervous, most were very excited. They were also practicing safe touching technique: two finger touch, sitting “criss-cross-applesauce”, and as I learned that day, “with their spoons in their bowl” (meaning hands in their lap). The toad was pretty good too.

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Here you see a Savannah Monitor behaving himself so that the children could touch him. If you have ever worked with a monitor, that is saying something! No hesitation here, these kindergartners were ready to touch the lizard even though he was big. Behind me in the photo is a good view of the table setup for that day. All of the specimens are something the children can touch like the crocodile skull, unless of course it is fragile enough to be in a jar or behind glass like the snake skeleton in the back.

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At the end of the presentation, the children have the opportunity to come past the table and touch the specimen I had been using as part of the discussion. Here you can see the interest on their faces as they touch real crocodile teeth (without the risk of a bite!), a tortoise shell, and with only a little hesitation, fossilized dinosaur dung! This is often where I wonder what they are thinking: should I really touch poop, or would my head fit inside the croc’s mouth?

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We don’t know who had more fun during El Paso Corporation’s Wildlife on Wheels…the students or the animals!  For more information on the Museum’s Outreach Programs, visit http://www.hmns.org/education/teachers/outreach_programs.asp.

Our baby beardies have new homes!

This post is by Sibyl, the museum’s volunteer recruiter. She’s been keeping us posted on the progress of the little bearded dragon babies that were laid in her office.  

Thank you to everyone who entered the drawing in hopes of winning one of the HMNS baby beardies!  It was exciting to see how many reptile lovers there are between HMNS staff members, volunteers and patrons! 

I wish we had a clutch of babies large enough to provide a baby for each of those entering the contest.  Though we are truly sad to see them leave the Volunteer Office, we are very thankful to know our eight babies have each found a nice home and nurturing parents to take care of them!


Congratulations to the winners of the first generation of HMNS baby beardies!

Kenneth Collins
Gladys Arakelian
Jeremy Gray
Rhian Farley
Jeanene Goza
Nadine Mc Clary
Bob Hopkins
Dee Sorrick

Thank you so much for your support towards the HMNS Capital Campaign!

Making Bearded Dragons, Part II: Up for Adoption

Today’s post is written by Sibyl Keller, a volunteer recruiter and educational coordinator at HMNS. Today, she updates us on the bearded dragon eggs that were recently laid in the volunteer office. Read her first post for the ful story.

WOW — What a week in the Volunteer Office! 

The incubator holding 12 bearded dragon eggs quietly lived on my kitchen counter next to the coffee maker for over two months.  The lizard lovers at the Museum patiently waited, day after day, wondering if Monster’s first clutch of eggs were even viable.  Through my research, I had read that many times the first clutch is not fertile; therefore, would not produce offspring. 

We were all elated that Monster actually laid 24 eggs – but, the disappointment of not producing at least one baby lingered in our minds. I had handled the eggs in search of any signs of life, but unfortunately I never discovered any indication of development.  Monster’s owner, Chris, asked daily about any “new news” I could offer.  As days passed, it didn’t look promising.  I told Chris I would bring the incubator in so he could see what I believed was not happening.  The incubator slowly traveled back to the Volunteer Office last Tuesday.

As I was in my morning routine of misting the lizard eggs that Tuesday morning – I noticed one of the eggs had shriveled up a bit and a dark spot had developed on the top part of the egg.  Maybe I had misted the eggs too much and I thought they might be starting to mold.  It was Chris who first noticed the dark spot was not mold but was actually a protrusion which was emerging from the top! 

Miraculously, 59 days after Monster laid 24 eggs – the first baby beardie was in the process of hatching! 

The discovery traveled through the halls of the Museum like wildfire and the first hatchling was welcomed by Museum friends throughout the day!  We watched this little hatchling ease itself into this world through hours of intense struggle. 

By late afternoon, the hatchling – fully emerged – laid limp next to the empty shell of the protected life it had developed from.  Amazingly, it was totally camouflaged – the same as the color of the substrate the egg had been nestled in for over two months! 

Unsure if this little girl was actually going to make it – we patiently waited.  It couldn’t have been but an hour later, this limp little fragile body became a mini-mass full of energy and the little hatchling was racing from corner to corner inside of the protective incubator walls! 

Through the magnifying glass, we studied every inch of this new creature. Her delicate toes, her wondering eyes, the perfectly laced frill circling her body to the intricate design of the pattern of her scales – the perfection of this creation amazed us all!  From her delicate features and her gentle personality, we agreed she was a girl.  If Monster and Leonardo only knew the miracle they had created!

So incredibly satisfied with the birth of this baby beardie, little were we expecting the revelation that took place through out the rest of the week!  Like clockwork, each new life chose his or her day to enter this world.  The second hatchling chose Wednesday.  Feisty, inquisitive and full of energy – we decided this one was a boy.  The third chose Thursday, and two chose to hatch on Friday!  We were elated by the end of the week – five babies had entered our world!

At the arrival of the first baby, I contacted Kathy and Leo.  This incredible team – a mother and her son, who have been sharing their passion of the animal world through their volunteer commitment at HMNS for years now.  It was their incubator they shared with me, along with the guidance and knowledge from their own personal experience in breeding and raising not only bearded dragons – but a multitude of critters! 

My first concern was how long these babies could exist without eating.  What else could I offer them, since days after introducing mini-crickets – the babies were still not eating.  I learned that surprisingly, newborns can exist for days while still absorbing the yolk for nutrition from which they developed! 

It was truly astonishing to see how active these little guys were in their first days of life without even consuming their first real ‘meat and potato meal’ on earth!  Kathy and Leo supplied me with a tiny ‘pot of gold,’ consisting of a live assortment of tiny beetles and mini-worms that were the most active I’ve ever seen! 

Now I know from my own experience – that crickets, even the tiniest of all, are too fast for newborn beardies – or possibly it could be those wiggly cricket antennas are just plain frightening!  I think it could just be something about the wiggle of a worm that attracts baby beardies!  That first meal for our first babies was consumed Saturday – that time was truly monumental!  They had chosen to live after all!

The hatchlings seemed to adapt well to their new habitat – a 10 gallon aquarium, layered with calcium enriched reptile sand, featuring a prominent rock that dwarfed the little critters as its scale appeared mountainous to their newborn size!  We soon found this little mountain would become the corner stone of life for the new beardie clan.

Friday afternoon, the incubator, the new beardie habitat and the ‘mighty miracle mister’ headed back home with me for the weekend.  Positioned in the same spot on my kitchen counter, the once quiet incubator seemed to have come to life in the past days,  Though it still sat so quietly in the same spot – it seemed to have taken on a whole new song.  As it had become so at work – the incubator and the remaining eggs were all that seemed to exist in our minds.

By Monday morning, February 9 – the new beardie clan was welcomed back at the Museum as a family of eight!  As a final encore, the last baby hatched that afternoon.

Still awaiting its future journey is one lone beardie dragon lizard egg.  Next to it lay two recently introduced gecko eggs Kathy and Leo brought in to join the crew in the incubator on their visit last week.  As I mist them daily, I no longer question if the miracle of life is happening – I now treasure the thought of what is to come.

Though we struggle with the thought and the emotions of our babies graduating and moving on – we also want to share the pleasure and the fascination we have with these fine creatures.  We know that discoveries are truly made daily at the Houston Museum of Natural Science!

Now, we want to offer a chance for our extended family – you – to offer a good home to one of our beardie babies, if interested and qualified.  Nothing could better support the Museum and our mission than a donation towards the HMNS Capital Campaign

Our babies are up for adoption – but only if you promise to provide a good, nurturing and loving home to one of them!  With only eight babies available, we will have a drawing in the Volunteer Office Friday, March 6 at 12 pm.  If you are interested in the possibility of owning one of our HMNS home-grown baby beardies, please feel free to stop by the Volunteer Office to put your name in the drawing – or send an e-mail to blogadmin@hmns.org.

If your name is drawn, you will receive your baby beardie as a gift with your donation of $40 to the HMNS Capital Campaign!  Please join us at 12 pm for the drawing this Friday!