SAN FRANCISCO (May 5, 2011) – Home to more than 38,000 live animals, the California Academy of Sciences is already hopping, crawling, climbing and slithering with dozens of lizards and snakes from around the world. But beginning May 9, 2011, squamates (the group that includes both legged and legless lizards, including snakes) will enjoy an even larger share of the spotlight—more than 60 new scaled reptiles will take up residence at the Academy this summer as part of its newest exhibit, Snakes & Lizards: The Summer of Slither. Showcasing a variety of amazing squamate adaptations, including projectile tongues, deadly venom, remarkable camouflage, and sometimes surprising modes of locomotion, the exhibit will run through September 5, 2011.
"Snakes and lizards are some of the most successful vertebrates on Earth," says Dr. Chris Andrews, Director of Steinhart Aquarium and Chief Operations Officer at the California Academy of Sciences, as well as a lifelong snake aficionado. "They have survived for over 200 million years, diversifying to occupy important biological niches on every continent except Antarctica—they can even be found inside the Arctic Circle. Along the way, they have evolved a number of remarkable survival strategies and have become crucial cogs in the wheels of their ecosystems. These animals have a tremendous amount to teach us about the evolutionary history and sustainability of life on Earth."
Over 300 Feet of Snake...
Prepare to be charmed—during the Snakes & Lizards exhibit, the California Academy of Sciences will be filled with exotic snakes from around the world that boast a cumulative length of over 300 feet. That's enough footage to stretch the entire length of a football field. The longest snake on display, an albino reticulated python that measures 15 feet long, will be stationed at the ground-floor entrance to the exhibit, welcoming visitors into the remarkable world of scaled reptiles. This bright yellow beauty named Lemondrop lacks the dark pigments that normally help pythons blend into the background while draped across tree branches. Lemondrop would have a hard time sneaking up on prey in the wild, but he stays well fed with the help of Academy biologists.
It's all relative...
Upon entering the exhibit, guests will explore the evolutionary relationships between lizards, snakes, and the rest of life on Earth. With nearly 8,000 known species in their ranks, the squamates are more diverse than mammals and have evolved to fill a wide range of niches, but they all share a few common features, including scales. (The word "squamate" comes from the Latin squama, meaning "scale.") Another adaptation that sets squamates apart from other reptiles is a highly specialized hinge in their jaw. Rather than hinging on a single point like the jaws of their primitive ancestors, the flexible jaws of squamates hinge from multiple points to allow for greater manipulation of prey and a faster, more powerful bite. This evolutionary marvel allows a gecko to efficiently chomp insects and a python to swallow a pig whole. While scientists have determined much of the squamate family tree, they still aren't entirely sure where snakes fit into the picture. They know that snakes are simply lizards that lost their legs (a strategy for squeezing into small burrows and other tight spaces), but there is still debate about when and where this first happened. Are snakes most closely related to gila monsters and their relatives, or skinks and their relatives? More research is needed to answer these questions.
Sight Hounds vs. Nose Hounds
Throughout the exhibit, visitors will learn about the diverse array of adaptations that have made squamates such a successful group, meeting live animals along the way that exemplify these traits. In order to communicate, hunt, and find a mate, some squamates rely primarily on their vision, while others turn to their sense of smell. Sight is supreme for the iguanas and their relatives, a group of about 1,400 species that some experts call the "sight hounds" of the squamate world. Like humans, these animals rely mostly on vision, not smell, to find their dinners and their mates—and to figure out what other members of their species are telling them. Other than the occasional hiss, squamates tend to be silent, but the sight hounds can definitely communicate. For these animals, movement and color change are a kind of language. Lashing tails or hisses can mean "Back off!" as can head bobs and push-ups. A change in skin color may mean "I'm asleep" or "I'm looking for a mate." Chameleons—which contrary to popular belief do not change color as a camouflage tactic, but rather to send messages to one another—are among the most talented color communicators. For other squamates, including monitors, skinks and snakes, the world is alive with chemical cues. These "nose hounds" use their long, forked tongues as part of an amazing chemoreceptive system, collecting odor molecules and delivering them to special sense organs in the roof of the mouth. They use their tongues for everything from detecting the location of their prey to finding mates.
Real Monsters and Dragons
Think monsters and dragons are just the stuff of fairytales? Think again. Snakes & Lizards features two fascinating animals that take their name from these mythical beasts—the gila monster and the eastern water dragon. One of the world's only venomous lizards, the gila monster delivers a potent toxin through grooves in its lower teeth. While this venom causes excruciating pain and dizziness to the recipients of a gila monster bite, it has also improved many human lives—a peptide in the venom is used to treat type-2 diabetes and has shown great potential as a treatment for Alzheimer's disease. Unlike their namesakes, eastern water dragons can't fly, but they are excellent swimmers. These lizards dive into the water when disturbed and can stay submerged for up to half an hour.
A Fossil Record
In addition to over 60 live animals, the exhibit also features a variety of fossil specimens and fossil casts. Among the highlights is a fossil cast of Megalania, the largest-known terrestrial squamate, which attained lengths up to 9.5 meters (30 feet). This ancient relative of today’s monitor lizards lived in Australia during the Pleistocene (from 1.6 million to 40,000 years ago).
Snakes & Lizards also offers numerous interactive stations, inviting museum-goers to listen to recorded squamate sounds, test their knowledge about these scaled reptiles, explore the inner workings of a rattlesnake on the hunt, and view videos of amazing squamate adaptations. An activity center for children encourages youngsters to engage in a variety of hands-on activities, including matching lizards to their habitats, assembling squamate skeletons, touching skin casts, piecing together puzzles, and playing science-related games.
In addition to the Snakes & Lizards exhibit, a suite of daily programs led by Academy educators will allow visitors to dive deeper into the world of squamates:
AMAZING SNAKES OF THE BAY AREA
Daily at 12:00 pm
May 9 - September 5, 2011
Learn about native snakes found in backyards and hiking trails throughout the Bay Area, and the important role they play in balancing their ecosystems. A presenter will introduce live snake ambassadors, and explore their habitats and fascinating adaptations for living in local arid and coastal climates. Free with Academy admission.
LIVE AFRICAN SAFARI
Daily at 1:00 pm
May 9 - September 5, 2011
Explore Africa on a mini-safari highlighting the continent’s biodiversity, and get up close and personal with fascinating live animals and specimens. Africa sustains many types of ecosystems – from savannahs and grasslands to tropical rainforests – and highly diverse wildlife, including numerous species of snakes and lizards, all of which exist in a delicate balance with one another. Free with Academy admission.
SNAKES – SHEDDING THE MYTHS
Daily at 2:00 pm
May 9 - September 5, 2011
Snakes are both fascinating and sometimes a bit intimidating! Through the ages, they have been represented in myths, movies and pop culture in both positive and negative ways. Learn about how incredible they really are, face your fears, and discover where some of those misconceptions come from. Free with Academy admission.
SCALES, TAILS, TEETH & MORE
Daily at 11:00 am
June 18 - September 5, 2011
Discover the diversity of hunting, eating and locomotion strategies used by snakes and lizards. Having survived for more than 200 million years, squamates (the group snakes and lizards belong to) are among the most successful vertebrates on Earth. Free with Academy admission.
These daily presentations will take place in the Academy's central piazza, where visitors can also find the larger-than-life robotic snake from the 1997 movie Anaconda. Signage accompanying this 40-foot-long model will explain the facts behind the fiction surrounding giant snakes.
Snakes & Lizards: The Summer of Slither includes both new exhibit elements designed by the California Academy of Sciences and the traveling exhibit, Lizards & Snakes: Alive!, which was organized by the American Museum of Natural History, New York (www.amnh.org), in collaboration with Fernbank Museum of Natural History, Atlanta, and the San Diego Natural History Museum, with appreciation to Clyde Peeling's Reptiland.